Will driverless cars change the world for the better? Google, Uber, Ford and others are all investing in the technology. Some say they will revolutionise our lives sooner than we think.
When will I get to ride in my first driverless car?
No one is 100% sure when the first, fully autonomous cars will be available for ordinary people to buy. But a lot of different companies are racing to be the first to deliver them. Tesla cars currently have “full, self-driving” features for sale, but they do not work.
In 2020, Toyota and Nissan are both hoping to release cars that can do some driving by themselves, such as getting on and off the motorway. By 2021, they will be joined by BMW and Ford. By 2030, Kia hopes to build cars that do not need drivers at all.
That sounds like a long time away…
Perhaps. In some places, however, they are already available. For example, a company called Waymo has been testing self-driving cars on the streets of Phoenix, Arizona, in the US for two years.
I’ve never heard of Waymo! Can it be trusted?
The company is owned by Alphabet, which also owns Google. It has pumped over $1 billion (£811 million) into the project. In tests, its cars have travelled over 10 million miles, getting into at least 36 minor accidents.
“To have a vehicle on public roads without a person at the wheel, we’ve built some unique safety features,” says Waymo’s boss. “Our system runs thousands of checks on itself every second.” If the computer spots a problem, it can “pull over or come to a safe stop”.
Are self-driving cars safer than cars with human drivers?
Some people think so. After all, human error is estimated to cause 94% of road accidents. Professor Kevin Curran points out that, unlike human drivers, “Computers don’t get bored, tired or distracted.”
But mistakes can still happen. Last year, Uber stopped testing its self-driving cars after a woman died in an accident.
What will happen if all cars are self-driving?
This could be safer than a mix of human and machine-driven cars. After all, human drivers are often to blame for the crashes with self-driving cars.
But a world full of autonomous vehicles will not just affect road safety. It could also change the way we live our lives. People may be less likely to own their own car if it is easy to hail a self-driving taxi. Children might become more independent if they can travel on the roads without driving. Adults would have more time to work or entertain themselves during their commutes.
Will it really change the world?
It could do. Driverless cars have been compared to the humble elevator by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk. Elevators may seem low-tech, but they revolutionised human life by making vast cities of towering skyscrapers practical to live in. Musk predicts that we will get so used to the autonomous machines that human driving will be outlawed as being “too dangerous”.
- Would you trust a driverless car to keep you safe on the road?
- Design your own self-driving car. Make sure it includes the five features labelled in the image at the top of this briefing. Then, try adding some of your own!
- Something which can act independently.
- A city in Arizona which is a popular testing site with self-driving car companies. This is mostly because it has relaxed laws about driverless cars. But it also helps that the city has lots of sunny weather and wide streets — perfect for testing new driving technology.
- The third most valuable brand in the world, after Amazon and Microsoft.
- According to the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey, released by the US Department of Transportation in 2015.
- Journeys to and from work.
- Called a “lift” in the UK. The first electric elevator was built in 1880.
- A person who sets up their own business.