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Will Driverless Cars Change the Future of Driving?

Anuj Mudaliar
Like many of today's inventions, driverless cars too were considered to be a topic of science fiction for a very long time. However, now it is no longer a question of whether these cars will be the future of road driving, but how quickly will they replace manual cars.
Let's take a look at this innovative concept, its pros and cons, and how it will affect our lives in the years to come.

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Quick Fact!

Until very recently, laws for driverless cars did not exist. The American states of California, Florida, Michigan, and Nevada have legalized the testing of such cars on public roads in 2013. Other states are also expected to pass legislation on this matter soon.
Autonomous/driverless cars are computer operated vehicles which drive themselves without needing any effort from a human driver or passenger. In many models, the vehicle senses the surrounding environment and navigates a given area by itself.
As this is one of the most important and impactful car technologies of the future, autonomous or self-driving cars are creating huge waves of interest and curiosity across the world. The development of these cars has been going on almost for a century now; the first autonomous car was tested in New York city in the 1920s through radio transmissions.
Since then, there have been many more attempts to create the perfect self-driven vehicle, with varying degrees of success. Although such cars are still used only for demonstration and experimental purposes, the day is fast approaching when manufacturers will mass produce these vehicles for the general public.

How Autonomous Cars Work

Driverless vehicles use LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), GPS, radar, and computerized vision to sense and navigate their surroundings, avoid obstacles, and identify road signs. Vehicles are classified into five types depending on the level of automation:

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1. No Automation: In these vehicles, the driver has complete control at all times, for all functions, i.e., steering, throttle, brake, etc., is completely dependent on the driver's inputs.
2. Function Specific Automation: These vehicles have very limited control over one or more functions, such as vehicle stability or emergency braking. The rest of the work is still done by the driver.
3. Combined Function Automation: These vehicles have control over two or more functions, which are often operated in synchronization, relieving the driver of a few responsibilities. For example, cars with cruise control features, also take care of lane centering.
4. Limited Self-driving Automation: Under certain road conditions, these vehicles allow the drivers to give up complete control of the functions related to vehicle safety, to computerized systems. The vehicle needs only occasional inputs from the driver, and gives enough time for the driver to take control of the vehicle or give it back.
5. Full Self-driving Automation: These vehicles take full control of themselves throughout the trip, inclusive of monitoring road conditions and controlling safety specific functions. The driver is not needed to do anything for the entire duration of the trip.
In the fully autonomous cars, GPS defines the objectives of the trip, including the starting point, ending point, traffic conditions, and the route that needs to be taken. Radar and cameras study road dynamics like obstacles, terrain, detours, etc., which are constantly changing during the duration of the trip.

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While cameras allow the vehicles to analyze the immediate surroundings, radar gives information about the area many meters ahead, and allows the car to make driving decisions even in bad weather conditions which impair vision.
The vehicles can also use lasers of LIDAR technology, which gives the car a 3D view of its surroundings. All the information from these devices are processed with computerized algorithms, which translate the data and takes appropriate action to have a safe and comfortable drive for the human passengers.

Benefits of Autonomous Cars

Fewer Accidents: Since all autonomous cars will have links with each other, and since they will neither get tired nor irritable, their operation will be more reliable than human driving. These vehicles will have better reaction times towards potential collisions than any human being, which means that the number of road accidents will reduce drastically.
Lesser Traffic Cops: Self-driving cars will follow all traffic rules, navigate busy roads efficiently, and reduce accidents. Therefore, the need for traffic policemen will also come down.
Relaxation for Car Occupants: Autonomous cars will take over most of the duties that human drivers presently have to do, including navigation and following road laws, which means that people will only have to sit in the cars and relax, and let the vehicle do the rest.
Elimination of Parking Problems: These cars will be able to drop the passengers off at any location, and act as a valet by driving to the closest available parking space without any human guidance. It will also be able to return and pick up the passengers when needed.
No Restrictions on Travel: At present, any person who is aged, tired, inexperienced, intoxicated, or handicapped has to rely on other people for getting them from one place to another. However, with driverless cars, this will no longer be a problem.
High Speed Limits: The computerized driving will be very reliable, which means that they can drive faster with more accuracy. This could lead to the raising of present speed limits.
Reduction in Traffic Congestion: If all the vehicles on the road are automated, they will work in sync with each other, effectively managing the flow of traffic, and reducing safety gaps.

Disadvantages of Self-driving Cars

Unemployment: The use of autonomous cars will reduce the need for humans in several driving related jobs like valets, traffic cops, taxi drivers, etc. All these people will have to be found alternative employment opportunities, which is easier said than done. Also, car insurance companies will be affected, as road safety will increase by a huge margin.
Legal Complications: In the rare case where an autonomous car has an accident with another vehicle, it can be difficult to decide who will be responsible for the damages and injuries. This is bad for drivers, vehicle manufacturers, and insurance companies alike.
Ambiguity in Ethics: Computers cannot always make decisions like a human does. For example, if a child runs out into the way of the vehicle, the computer may not be able to decide on whether to hit the child or to swerve away into a ditch, thereby endangering the passenger's life.
Conditions for Manual Override: An inexperienced or disabled person sitting in a self-driving car may not know what to do in an emergency where the computer software malfunctions, and he/she needs to take manual control of the car to avoid an accident.

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Illegal Usage: Although a rare scenario, these cars could be used for illegal activities, such as transporting guns, bombs, or drugs, thereby becoming potential terrorist threats.
Computer Software Problems: All computers, no matter how sophisticated, are susceptible to faults and bugs, which might occur while the car is in motion, putting the passengers in great danger. Passengers can also be threatened if the car is under attack by a hacker.
No Privacy: Autonomous cars will use many methods of tracking, similar to GPS, for navigation purposes, and to study the surrounding area. This means that someone always knows where you are. This can be a major disadvantage due to the lack of privacy.

Scope of Driverless Cars in the Future

Google created the first fully autonomous car prototype in 2004 - 05, capturing the attention of the world. Since then, many more companies from across the globe, such as Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, Bosch, Nissan, Toyota, Audi, Volvo, Ford, BMW, and Volkswagen have developed their own self-driving car models.
However, for these cars to become a reality on public streets, comprehensive road laws have to be made to accommodate this new technology. Also, it is estimated that it will take around 20 more years before we have completely reliable cars that have been tested and approved for public driving.
However, the biggest obstacle to getting these cars on the road is going to be their price. Currently, most prototypes cost above USD 300,000 each, and since the average American spends not more than USD 30,000 on a new car, a fully automated vehicle seems like a distant dream.
As of now, most people feel that, while driverless cars have many great benefits, the concerns about privacy, unreliable software, legal liability, and price have to be solved satisfactorily before these vehicles can become a part of mainstream society.
Like other technological innovations, it is clear that the acceptance of self-driving cars will happen only through gradual development, rather than an overnight revolution.