To some it sounds like automotive utopia, to others a dystopian nightmare: Cars that drive themselves around without any input whatsoever from the occupants.
While it might seem like something from a science-fiction film, autonomous cars that park themselves or drive along roads while you read the paper are a very real thing indeed and, if predictions are to be believed, are coming far sooner than you might think.
Manufacturers have been working on autonomous systems for years – in fact, some four years ago I was driven round a test track by a Nissan Leaf that could overtake and slow down at junctions all by itself.
Tesla – which didn’t respond to our request for comment – has been at the forefront of autonomous driving technology, rolling out a suite of self-driving features across its model range. But that hasn’t been without problems. A series of high-profile crashes, some of which sadly led to the deaths of the drivers, have thrown a spotlight on the technology.
In a poll of more than 2,000 DriveTribe.com users, some 70 per cent of respondents said they wouldn’t trust an autonomous car to drive them. So, is it public wariness of the technology that’s holding it back, legislation or the fact systems just aren’t quite ready yet?
A spokesman for Kia believes it’s far more complicated than that.
“Much of the in-car technology exists,” he said. “Kia vehicles are operating at our R&D centres with remote parking capability, emergency avoidance technology and self-driving technology – but that is useless on its own without safe operating conditions on our roads and the infrastructure to allow these systems to be widely rolled out.”
While the car systems work very well in the confines of a test track, where the white lines are freshly painted and pedestrians and cyclists few and far between, out in the real world it’s far more complicated.
Autonomous systems rely on good infrastructure and well-maintained roads – something most countries simply don’t have. Throw in the quirks of driving – such as busy zebra crossings in cities, letting people out at junctions or merging in traffic – and robotic driving begins to struggle.
And that’s before you even begin to consider the simple issue of poor road markings. How often have you driven along a road and noticed the white lines are broken or faded? While that’s fine for humans, self-driving cars rely heavily on good markings to navigate.
A spokesman for the UK’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said: “The automotive industry is investing huge amounts in CAVs (connected autonomous vehicles), and increasing their number on our roads promises to bring wide-ranging benefits, especially on safety.
“To realise this potential, however, the conditions must be right, and sustained support from governments is vital. Crucial will be updating road traffic laws, improving 5G coverage across all road networks, encouraging local authorities to work with industry to implement urban mobility services and future harmonisation of international regulations to ensure these new vehicles can operate seamlessly between the UK and abroad.”
And it’s this investment that’s so desperately needed across the globe for autonomous cars to really flourish.
“The technology can work just as effectively on a Somerset country lane as it can on a California freeway but only if the infrastructure is there to support it,” added the Kia spokesman.
“A mobile phone is just a collection of wires and components if there is no signal; the same applies to autonomous vehicle technology.”
Ford plans to launch a “commercial service” with a purpose-built, self-driving vehicle in the US in 2021.
A Ford spokesman said: “Right now, the roads aren’t as important as making sure the self-driving software is done right. If you have the right software, you will be able to navigate within geo-fenced areas.
“Each market has its own challenges and we have seen that in the US within the five areas where we have been testing – Pittsburgh, Detroit, Miami, Washington DC and Palo Alto in California. The more we test and the more challenges we face, the more our software learns.”
While infrastructure needs to improve across the globe – including the roll-out of 5G networks that will allow autonomous cars to communicate quickly between each other – one of the biggest hurdles that still remains is public acceptance.
“The public’s safety must remain the highest priority in developing this technology or we run the risk of never being able to make it a viable tool for resolving so many different transportation issues,” added the Ford spokesman.
“In order to gain the public’s trust and acceptance, we need to make sure we are operating safely and communicating regularly.”
What is clear is that while there are currently risks associated with self-driving technology as it integrates with humans on the roads, the benefits in the long term – when all cars are autonomous – has the potential to eradicate deaths on the roads.
A Volvo spokesperson said: “Ninety-four per cent of crashes today are due to human-related reasons, with behavioural issues such as speeding, intoxication and distraction the prime contributors. Autonomous driving will eliminate the risks of such human-related reasons in driving and take safety into a new era for society as a whole.”
How, then, do car companies – and governments – persuade motorists to ditch their steering wheels and take a back seat, especially considering 70 per cent in our poll refused to even entertain the idea of self-driving cars?
“Two decades ago, similar numbers would not have trusted sat navs or cruise control systems,” countered the Kia spokesman.
“Exposure to these systems will bring acceptance. Also, the insurance industry will welcome increased autonomy as it will reduce accidents – cheaper car insurance for autonomous vehicles will drive acceptance too.”
Ford thinks that by slowly introducing drivers to autonomous functions they’ll be truly won over.
The spokesman said: “Helping ease the anxiety behind a fully autonomous vehicle is the introduction of driver-assist technologies.
“In the last decade, we have implemented more and more driver-assistance technologies which take over certain tasks while the driver remains responsible and fully in the loop.
“With this increased offer of supporting systems, people learn how and to what extent they can rely on the technologies, start to build confidence and finally get used to them.”
Throw into the mix big tech firms such as Google, Apple and Dyson, which are all desperate to get in on the self-driving action, and predictions of full autonomy by 2025 look more likely than ever. Whether we – or our roads – will be ready for them, though, remains to be seen.