Self-driving cars, which were once only murmurs in Silicon Valley less than a decade ago, have now hit the street. This month, Uber’s first self-driving fleet arrived in Pittsburgh, but they will still be supervised by humans in the driver’s seat. Advancements in automated systems and AI are quickly giving way to a new reality: that driverless cars can provide a safer, more efficient method of transport.
Many corporations and unknown start-ups are breaking into the frontiers of self-driven cars, but no completely driverless car has made it beyond the test phase yet. Among the more well-known and vocal self-driving innovators and proponent is the founder of Tesla, Elon Musk. Tesla’s driver assist system, “Autopilot,” offers a mechanically-enhanced driving experience that is between traditional driving and pure automation. Features such as lane-change guidance and ultra-precise steering protect the driver from human error, with a 50% reduction in accidents, says tech pioneer Elon Musk. According to Newsweek, U.S. traffic deaths, injuries and related costs increased in 2015. Over 30,000 people are killed every year in auto-related accidents and over 2 million more are injured. Significantly reducing driver-related deaths and accidents with driverless systems has the potential to be one of this generation’s greatest health achievements.
The average American commute is 50 minutes a day, which adds up to nearly 10 full days a year behind the wheel just to get to work and back. Increased individual productivity is another advantage of autonomous cars, perhaps a reason the marketplace is taking great strides to make the technology commercially viable. Imagine an extra four hours a week to accomplish whatever else we wanted to besides drive to work. Time is our most valuable resource, and the technologies of today greatly emphasize conserving it in our day-to-day lives. This is something that driverless cars are uniquely positioned to address.
The self-driving car is an idea that first took hold among nimble Silicon Valley startups and Google, but has rapidly evolved into a primary focus of the “Big Three” auto companies. Cruise Automation is a driverless car startup that was acquired in May by GM for approximately $1B. Cruise was originally researching a kit called the RP-1 to retrofit Audis with autonomous capabilities, a system they estimated to be priced at $10,000. But now they are integrating their technology into GM’s manufacturing process, testing off-the-line driverless Chevrolets. This follows GM’s major $500 million investment in Lyft earlier this year.
Their aim is a fleet of driverless Lyft taxis, an idea that could potentially operate much of the country’s transportation needs without a single cabbie or additional investment in traditional public transit. Rideshare giant Uber has a similar strategy in place, and is beginning to test its new driverless service in Pittsburgh in the coming days, albeit with a backup human driver. Just this week in Singapore, driverless technologies company nuTonomy launched a public road test of driverless vehicles, the first company to make such a step. But a complete integration of driverless service worldwide or even nationally is still a dream, and a tall order even for a company that has just retooled the way the world gets a cab.
New university technologies can potentially make autonomous vehicles safer and more cost-effective. Recently, Yonsei University in Korea was granted a patent for an autonomous vehicle control algorithm that processes a number of vital functions in a driverless car. This new system has the potential to become a development platform for auto innovators, accelerating operational refinements, safety and performance.[viii] There is a wellspring of university technologies augmenting the self-driving revolution.
What once started as a niche idea is quickly becoming a global standard, pushing the automotive industry to innovate at a breakneck pace to stay ahead of the competition. All of the entities mentioned in this article are racing to be first to market with driverless cars—an achievement that is heavily stymied by the new sector’s lack of regulatory framework, infrastructure and public support. But the outlook is bright, as innovators and the marketplace collaborate to bring the driverless dream into reality.
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