How close are we to autonomous vehicles?

While we aren’t yet at the science fiction world of flying cars, the notion of driver-less vehicles looks well within reach, and in some cases, is being successfully tested around the country. But how close are we to being able to commute to work while playing sudoku in what used to be the driver’s seat?

Thus far, tests of autonomous vehicle systems have shown great promise. It’s been almost two years since a self-driving Budweiser truck made a 120-mile trip in Colorado, and there has been significant progress made. Major companies such as Uber, Google, Tesla, Amazon, Intel and others have all developed and tested the technology for use. It is estimated there has been well over $50 billion of investment into research and development of the technology over the past few years alone. 

On the legal front, 29 states have already approved legislation allowing for the testing of autonomous vehicles, with some even registered with the local department of motor vehicles. 

“I think [autonomous driving]’s just going to become normal. Like an elevator,” noted Tesla CEO Elon Musk. “They used to have elevator operators, and then we developed some simple circuitry to have elevators just come to the floor that you’re at, you just press the button.”

The biggest impediment to making the human driver obsolete seems to be the computational power required to ensure an autonomous vehicle operates properly. Over the past 10 years cars have become more and more like computer systems, with Bluetooth, voice-activated controls and even televisions becoming common in the automobile. The autonomous vehicle takes this to the next level, and requires the integration of a host of circuitry, wiring and computer chips that will need to last for more than a decade across a variety of weather conditions in order to function properly. 

Still, most research on the subject has come to the same conclusion: Driverless cars will result in fewer automobile accidents when the technology eventually becomes perfected. Even with these findings, each major accident involving an autonomous vehicle could be a roadblock toward mass adoption, such as a recent accident in March when a self-driving Uber SUV hit and killed a pedestrian.

Because autonomous vehicle technology is not fully developed it seems the feeling from the general public is it would rather put control in its own hands before handing the reins over to a computer. Yet, there may come a time when we no longer have a choice other than to hand the keys over to the computer.  


 Dan Pelberg is a freelance business and technology writer and resident of Lakeville. He writes for startups, news outlets, financial firms and small businesses of all shapes and sizes.