The age of the self-driving car is nearly upon us, or at least that’s what major technology and automotive companies are hoping. There have been major advancements in the world of driver assistance programs such as sensors, cameras, and radars that help prevent collisions and improve safety. However, these are categorized as “semi-autonomous” features of cars, rather than the cars being wholly self-driving.
When it comes to fully functional driverless cars, Google has been getting most of the attention—they have one of the most recognizable names in the tech world, so it’s only natural their efforts would be the most widely recognized. However, a few newcomers to the push for autonomous cars are driving new leaps in the field of development.
Uber and Ford’s Big Plays
With a technology company leading the pack in car autonomy, many analysts have wondered when automakers would start developing their own solutions (beyond semi-autonomous configurations). Now, Ford appears to be one of the first automakers to step up with a serious effort. The company has announced they will be testing their automated vehicle models at Mcity, a large-scale city simulation in Michigan. Mcity is a controllable, safe environment that offers many unusual, but plausible circumstances a car could find itself navigating on real streets. Because of this, Mcity is safer and more rigorous than public street testing. Its location in Michigan also gives Ford the chance to test car performance under variant and severe weather conditions.
Uber is currently deep into developing its own driverless car prototypes, in an effort to make its transportation app even cheaper, safer, and more efficient for its core user base. While there are no formal testing systems in progress or on the schedule, Uber is already making preparations to change its business model, offering vocational training to a portion of its current drivers—who would theoretically be out of a job once the driverless car emerges.
Where Does Google Stand?
Google has been working on autonomous cars for many years, but is still fine-tuning its approach. Google’s perspective is that semi-autonomous cars are only a temporary solution that delays the advancement to a wholly autonomous unit. In effect, they’re going straight to the end game, so they want to take their time and perfect the model before it ever reaches the consumer market. Currently, their prototype self-driving cars have driven more than one million miles across California and Texas, though there’s no official word when they plan to start making these cars available to the public.
The Big Limitations
With more than one million miles under Google’s belt and other tech companies and automakers scrambling to catch up, you might be wondering why we haven’t yet seen a self-driving car on the market. There are two big limitations stopping their release, and both of them are legal.
The first lies with policymakers. Since the law is ambiguous about the legality and road requirements of self-driving cars (we haven’t had any yet), it takes time to develop them. California has been particularly slow and stubborn about developing new, flexible self-driving car regulations, and Google’s stance on protecting its trade secrets decreases transparency and makes the process even slower.
The second lies with brand and autonomous car reputation. This is a new technology that many people fear, and all it takes is one incident to ignite the distrust of the entire nation. Imagine if a Google-branded car got into a fatal accident the first day it rolled out to consumers—even if it wasn’t the technology’s fault, Google would probably lose a significant chunk of consumer trust forever. In response, Google (and other companies) are doing everything they can to iron out every conceivable kink long before the cars reach consumer hands.
How Close Is the Fully Autonomous Car?
Google and Ford already have functional prototypes, and early testing suggests they’re already safer and more reliable than human drivers. In this way, self-driving cars are already here. All we’re waiting on is lawmakers to make their final decisions on autonomous car regulations, and for companies to complete their rigorous cycles of testing. Unfortunately, there’s no way to accurately predict how long that would take—it could be a few months or a few years. In any case, the longer it takes, the more companies like Ford and Uber will have time to develop their own competing products, and in a capitalistic market like ours, more choices is always a good thing.
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