Self-driving cars, are they the future?

Imagine this. It’s the daily school run, but instead of making the journey yourself, you input the address into the sat nav system, sit back and relax. Because the car will drive for you. It all feels very futuristic doesn’t it, but this scenario may be much closer than you think.

Question. Would you feel comfortable letting the car drive you and your children? We’ll come back to this later!

Self-driving cars have been trialled since the 50s, but it’s only in recent years that the technology has become advanced enough to see real life application. The reason for their development? Well, safety mostly. 94% of serious crashes are caused by human error (1). It’s no wander the technology is being explored by every single large-scale automotive company in the world. 

But where is the technology at present, what do the public think about it, and will they take the joy out of driving? Read on to find out more about the current state and what the future may hold for self-driving cars.

Three Waymo self-driving cars lined up
Image credit: REUTERS

What are self-driving cars and how do they work?

Self-driving cars have the ability to navigate roads, without human intervention. They do this through a series of sensors, cameras, radar, and GPS to make decisions about their surroundings. We won’t go into the nitty gritty here, but if you’re after a more detailed breakdown of the technology head to Imagination Tech. Or Wayve, an AI tech company in the UK who give a nice breakdown of the tech used in their cars. 

There are varying levels of ‘autonomous’ driving, from 0-5 according to the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). From L1, ‘driver assistance’ technology like cruise control and lane assistance, to L3, ‘partial automation’ where the car performs most tasks, but the driver is still required to monitor the environment and finally L5 ‘full automation’, where the car performs every task, and the driver is not required at all. (2)

Many cars on our roads already use L1 or L2 – we’re already quite used to that level of self-driving. But what happens when that level is taken even further…

Diagram showing the different levels on autonomy in self-driving cars

Current status

So where is the technology as it stands?

As it stands, there are no commercially available fully autonomous cars to purchase (just yet!).

However, there are pilot schemes taking place across the world, particularly in the sphere of ride-hailing and transfers. Different levels of autonomy are being tested in these schemes. There has been great technological progress, however there are still concerns over safety. Many of the issues cited by tech companies involve ‘edge cases’. Basically, situations that the system has not been specifically trained to handle. Some examples include animal interactions and situations involving aggressive drivers which defy traffic laws (3). Both of these are unpredictable and make it very difficult to programme into the car’s system. Very difficult, but very important. 

Let’s take a look at some of those companies leading the way…

Waymo

Established as Google’s self-driving car project but now independent, Waymo have conducted over 20 billion miles (wowza!) of self-driving in their modified Toyota Priuses, Luxus SUVs and Chrysler minivans. Waymo One, their public ride-hailing service has been live in parts of Phoenix, Arizona since 2020, where registered members of the public can hail fully autonomous rides. Each ride gathers data to ultimately improve the technology for the future. Some are fully autonomous, others show up with specially trained Waymo drivers to test function and gather intel. 

In 2023, they continue to develop driving technology focussing on their Waymo Driver to help improve mobility and save lives lost to traffic crashes. They have also partnered with Jaguar to develop the world’s first premium electric self-driving car using their I-PACE model.

Waymo One Self Driving car being tested on public streets
Image credit: Waymo

Cruise  

Cruise (acquired by General Motors in 2016) operates all-electric self driving cars in limited areas within San Francisco, Austin & Phoenix which first opened up to the public in 2022. As of September 2022, Cruise had 100 self-driving cars on the roads and have requested permission to expand its service area and number of vehicles. However, this has raised concerns with many local residents and the State Commission. There have been reports of Cruise vehicles blocking roads for hours as they ‘failed’, causing severe congestion, plus they had to recall some 80 vehicles after a crash in June 2022

Whilst for the majority of trips, they perform perfectly, it appears like all other self-driving cars out there, there are still some major teething problems with the tech. They certainly won’t be cruising into the mainstream any time soon. 

Man getting into a Cruise self driving car
Image credit: Cruise

Zoox

Retail giant Amazon acquired tech start up, Zoox in 2020 and in February 2023 carried out tests on their ‘robotaxi’s’ (or giant toasters as we prefer!) on public roads for the first time. These vehicles were built fully autonomous from scratch, rather than retrofitting existing vehicles. In their initial phase, Robotaxi’s were only available for use by their employees, carting them around their office blocks 1 mile apart. Plus they were limited to 40mph, daylight hours and prohibited during bad weather.

They claim to be the world’s first purpose built robotaxi’s to operate on public roads, however critics say they are lagging behind other market leaders such as Cruise or Waymo. (4) 

They have yet to announce a commercial launch, citing they will need to get additional government clearance before that’s possible. 

Blue Zoox self driving taxi parked
Image credit: The Verve

Project Endeavour

Moving a bit closer to home, Project Endeavour was the UK’s first multi-city trial of self-driving cars. It went live in 2020 in Oxford, London & Birmingham and was a government backed R&D project. This project brought together a consortium of companies including: Oxbotica, Oxfordshire County Council, Immense Similation and DG Cities for example, who all had their part to play to make success of these trials. Autonomous driving was carried out in a mix of rural and urban environments, plus included a public survey to review public perception (more on that later!).

Six Ford Mondeo vehicles, capable of L4 autonomous driving completed several trips, with different weather conditions and during different times of day and traffic scenarios. The results? Well strangely after lots of searching I’ve been unable to uncover any clear results from the live trials… mysterious! 

 

Blue Ford self-driving car
Image credit: Oxbotica

 

So we’ve heard about some forward thinking tech companies, but what are the real benefits and challenges for self-driving cars.

Benefits of self-driving cars

Eliminate the number of ‘human’ related crashes on our roads.

With around 94% of all crashes caused by human error – a lot of lives could be saved by automating driver – removing a lot of the risk associated with human error. Road rage, phone usage and other distractions can all be eliminated with self-driving cars.

Greater accessibility for the elderly or people with disabilities

People living with disabilities or conditions such as epilepsy are not always able to hold a driving license. This is very restricting and means a lot of reliance on other people or public transport. However, with self-driving cars, it would give these people the freedom and independence to drive without support. The same goes for older drivers, who may not feel confident driving themselves or are unable due to age restrictions.

Increase efficiency and productivity

Self-driving cars mean passengers do not tire, or have to spend time driving. They can relax, make calls or reply to emails. They can essentially carry on with other things, taking the hassle out of driving and the daily commute.

Save money

 

Self-driving cars may reduce the cost of insurance (because of less risk of collision) and in the long term could reduce costs associated with crashes such as medical bills and vehicle repair work. (5)

Challenges

Coping with unexpected situations

This is one of the most common challenges experienced with self-driving cars and its a big one! At the time of writing (February 2023), Tesla just recalled 362,000 cars in the US over self driving software errors. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said the Tesla software allows a vehicle to “exceed speed limits or travel through intersections in an unlawful or unpredictable manner increases the risk of a crash”. (6) Whilst these vehicle aren’t fully autonomous, this recall demonstrates just how difficult it is to get self-driving cars right. There are so many unexpected situations that the technology has to learn to deal with. Different road conditions is a biggy. Some road signs are clear, others need repainting or have pot holes and different road surfaces. Self-driving cars can’t just work well on freshly laid concrete with perfectly painted guides. They have to work in all situations if they are to become a reality. 

Liability

Who is liable if there is a crash involving a self-driving car? And how will self-driving cars be insured? These are all big questions that need to be ironed out before they can become commonplace. 

In fully-autonomous cars, the driver isn’t required at all. So they might not be alert and may not even be watching the road. In this example – who would be liable for a crash? The manufacturer? The ‘passenger’ who owns the car. It’s still a grey area in many areas. (7)

According the the UK’s autonomous driving roadmap – the manufacturers operating self-driving cars would be liable for the vehicles actions when they are used in full autonomous mode. This was not the case when an Uber test vehicle sadly killed a pedestrian in 2017. A safety driver was present at the steering wheel whilst the car was in L5 autonomy, and she was charged with negligent homicide. Uber faced no charges (8)

Open to hackers 

As with any computer based technology, self-driving cars could be open to hackers. Posing a risk to those in the car, and pedestrians and cyclists. Thankfully, we’ve not seen any wide-scale hacks just yet, but these have been tested in the labs. Experts do however say that even semi-autonomous vehicles already on our roads could be open to attack. It is yet another challenge that car markers will have to overcome to ensure safety. (9)

Weather conditions

Another challenge for self-driving cars is the weather. In certain conditions it can massively reduce a cars ability to understand its surrounds and ultimately, not successfully get from A-B. Cutting edge technology, right?!  

Heavy rain, snow and fog can all impact the cars radar and sensors, meaning they are unable to detect the road ahead, hazards, pedestrians, cyclists, the lot. For example, Zoox pilot cars are not permitted for use during bad weather. Experts suggest it can reduce their functionality by up to 55%.

To combat this issue, some car makers are incorporating weather data into their cars, so they can inform the user of the cars potential functionality, depending on the weather forecast (9).

Does this mean though, that self-driving cars may never become a reality in areas of the world with extreme weather conditions? 

 

Road network redesigns

 

If self-driving cars are to become a reality, it’s not just about producing new cars at the factory. Our entire network of roads might need to be redesigned to facilitate this new technology and potentially making road markings and signs universal and clear. This shift would be costly and not possible in all parts of the world – therefore excluding some areas from benefiting from this technology. 

 

Women on a laptop in a self-driving car

Public perception

There have been several studies to determine how the public feel about self-driving cars. Even if the tech is there, the success of self-driving cars will ultimately come down to public opinion.

There are too many studies to list them all, but here we’ve picked out of a few:

YouGov

 

In 2021, YouGov gathered data on self-driving cars in the UK after recent reports of accidents involving Tesla’s Autopilot system.

Key takeaways from their study:

  • 73% of Brits would not feel comfortable as a passenger in a self-driving car
  • 68% of Brits would not feel comfortable as a pedestrian in an area where self-driving cars are allowed on the roads
  • 72% of Brits would trust a human driver to make better decisions in high-risk situations

Ultimately, this small survey (1,200 participants) suggests that there is still a lack of trust amongst the public in the safety of self-driving cars.

Project Endeavour

 

Project Endeavour was a mobility project designed to help accelerate the adoption of self-driving cars in the UK. The project ran between 2019-2021 led by Oxbotica, DG Cities and Immense. The project’s aim was to engage the public, test the technology and prove its viability. 

Findings from their public survey of 2,491 Brits found that:

  • The majority of Brits are undecided or not yet comfortable using self-driving cars. 55.1% would not feel confident using a self-driving car tomorrow if it were possible
  • 44.2% of the surveyed Brits said they do not believe them to be safer than traditional vehicles
  • After live trials, perceptions improved slightly (by 15 points)

So, it appears us Brits are not ready for self-driving cars, just yet. But what about the US?

American Automobile Association (AAA)

 

For the past 6 years, the AAA has carried out public research on autonomous vehicles to uncover what the population really think. And the research suggests, Americans are still lukewarm about the technology(10).

In 2022, the survey found:

  • 85% are presently fearful or unsure of the technology and would not feel comfortable in an autonomous car
  • 8/10 would prefer that the industry focusses efforts on improving the existing support features in cars, rather than developing self-driving cars

 

A cruise self-driving car on the street

Regulation & legal issues 

In the UK

Currently, self-driving cars are not permitted on our roads (unless authorised as part of a trial) however the UK Government has already outlined their support for self-driving cars. They’re putting £100million behind their launch in the UK and believe we could see their safe roll out as soon as 2025 thanks to this fund.

Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng said:

Self-driving vehicles have the potential to revolutionise people’s lives, particularly by helping those who have mobility issues or rely on public transport to access the jobs, local shops and vital services we all depend on.

 

Read more about the UK’s self-driving revolution roadmap

 

What about the US?

In the US, there are around 30 companies permitted to operate self-driving cars on roads. Each has to gain permission from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and are limited to a certain number of vehicles and designated areas.

To read more about the NHTSA’s view on self-driving cars head to their website.

The future?

That still remains unclear. What this brief overview (it really is brief, there is so much to talk about in this sphere!) has shown is that there is still A LOT to learn. Mastering fully autonomous technology is tough and getting it wrong, potentially fatal. What is interesting is that this industry hasn’t grown as quickly as expected, which is probably due to the countless unknowns the technology has to deal with. 

Globally though, companies and governments are still moving forward with trials and pushing for legislation to bring these safely onto our roads. 

So, back to our original question. It’s the daily school run. Would you feel comfortable using a self-driving car, sitting back and relaxing whilst it drives you and your kids? The jury is out!

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