In 2017, the head of the Contextual Robotics Institute in San Diego predicted that in the next 10 to 15 years, autonomous, driverless cars will become the norm. If that turns out to be true, children born today might never learn to drive – as they wouldn’t reach the legal driving age before the change from manual to autonomous kicks in.
But how realistic is this claim? One of the key concerns holding back a tide of autonomous vehicles is that of safety. So far accidents involving driverless vehicles have been the fault of human drivers elsewhere on the road, like the Google car that was hit by a van running a red light. However, there are many situations we find ourselves in while driving that people don’t yet trust a robot to navigate.
Everyday cars now come with all kinds of safety features; ones that help you stay perfectly in lane, ones that judge distance and tell you when to stop accelerating or reversing, as well as many others. But when we think of things like pulling out into a queue of traffic, or reading road signs that are covered in graffiti or stickers, there remains a certain amount of human understanding needed.
Drivers in decline
Already it has been suggested that there are fewer teenagers learning to drive now than there were ten years ago, with statistics from the UK’s Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency showing an 18% drop in 17 to 25-year-olds getting behind the wheel since 2007. The rising cost of university tuition fees has been blamed, with many young people waiting until after their education to start paying for lessons. Another factor is the cost of getting insured as a new driver.
However, driving schools dispute the statistic, pointing out that penny-counting after the 2008 recession has skewed data – and that figures published earlier this year actually show a year-on-year rise in the number of people taking their driving tests.
While it can cost more to insure new drivers, and particularly young new drivers, more and more insurers now offer specially designed learner driver policies to help young people get on the road. Whether you think of it as a rite of passage or not, it’s hard to ignore the fact that for many, learning to drive is a hugely important part of gaining independence. The question is, will autonomous cars be accessible enough, quickly enough, to provide a suitable alternative?
The expense of going driverless
This kind of cutting-edge technology doesn’t come cheap, so touting it as a viable alternative to buying a second-hand car and taking lessons with your parents doesn’t seem realistic at first.
In ongoing discussions around driverless vehicles, the assumption has always been that one major benefit of these cars will be that they are a shared resource. Passengers will need to avoid paying for something which is parked all night in your driveway and parked all day at your office by being part of a sharing program.
While car ownership is already set to fall thanks to the increasing popularity of car sharing and carpooling schemes, the systems currently in place still require a user to do the driving themselves at some point.
Overcoming the fear of autonomy
Human drivers make plenty of mistakes, and so far it’s already been proven that robots make less. But no system is perfect, and you only have to look at the headlines about driverless car crashes and flaws in technology to see that failures by robots will be harder to accept.
One issue is the lack of standardised testing for these types of vehicles. For a human driver to get on the road, we must take the time to go through lesson after lesson, before being marked on a series of details and manoeuvres and failing if we make too many mistakes. Driverless testing is still a very new concept, and for now there is no industry-wide test. In order to allow for research and development, the rules are pretty forgiving, with the onus on manufacturers to decide when driverless cars are safe to be launched.
Now that technological advances are making it safer and easier for human beings to learn to drive than ever before, it seems unlikely that we will feel the need to overcome our phobia of autonomous vehicles as quickly as their developers might think.
The future of driving
Self-driving cars will certainly become a part of everyday life in the not-so-distant future, but most people agree that it will take more than a decade for them to be accepted as the norm.
This technology will be ready to take over long before we are, as we habitually hold on to our trusted and familiar vehicles. There are also issues that need to be tackled, like the efficiency of sensors in fog, heavy rain or snow. And while it is not unrealistic to predict that driverless cars will reduce traffic accident figures, it may be unrealistic to think this is the last generation who will be suspicious of trusting a vehicle to drive itself.