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Will self-driving cars be on the road by 2019?

Kwik Fit | Monday 31st December 2018 9:25am

Woman driving autonomous car

Imagine being able to read the news or catch up with your emails on your daily road commute to work, or relaxing and watching a film or your favourite TV series when making a long journey by car. This dream could soon be a reality. With companies including Tesla, Waymo, Ford and Uber all working on driverless vehicle technology, the way we get around could be about to change dramatically.

In fact, according to Tesla co-founder Elon Musk, fully self-driving cars may be on the road as early as next year.

Leading the way

Speaking to Recode, the notoriously ambitious entrepreneur said he’s confident that Tesla will achieve this milestone in 2019 - ahead of other manufacturers. Musk suggested that his company is leading the pack when it comes to the all-important software needed for self-driving cars.

He acknowledged that rival Waymo is a close competitor, but added that he doesn’t believe this company or any other comes close to Tesla “in terms of achieving a general solution”.

The innovator and businessman remarked: “You can definitely make things work like in one particular city or something like that by special-casing it. But in order to work… all around the world in all these different countries where there [are] different road signs, different traffic behaviour… you really have to have a generalised solution.” This, according to Musk, is where Tesla really excels.

He went on to highlight the manufacturer’s latest self-driving software, which is called Drive on Navigation. He suggested that this is a major step toward total self-driving. The system integrates navigation with autopilot capability and can perform tasks such as overtaking slow vehicles.

Advocates of self-driving cars believe that the technology can help to improve access to mobility services and make the roads safer.

Self-driving taxis

Self-driving vehicles are already on the roads in specific locations. For example, Waymo recently became the first car developer to launch commercial automated driving services. The technology development company has started taking paying customers in its self-driving taxis in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. It has been piloting these vehicles since 2016 in a test area spanning 100 square miles, and it is also testing autonomous systems in a total of 24 other cities across the US, including the San Francisco Bay area. However, these vehicles are currently not fully driverless yet as they are operating with a driver behind the wheel.

Self-driving vehicles are no longer an unusual sight in these locations. Waymo has now clocked up over 10 million miles of autonomous driving on public roads. As the technology continues to advance and becomes more widely available, consumers may quickly get used to travelling in taxis without drivers. Research group ARK Invest predicts that by 2020, two out of every 1,000 miles driven in US urban areas could be a Waymo autonomous vehicle. In a research note, ARK stated: “Once all 80,000 vehicles hit its fleet, Waymo could address half of Phoenix’s travel needs, or 0.3 per cent of US urban vehicle miles travelled.”

Waymo is still deciding how much it ultimately wants to charge people for its rides, but ARK estimates that these journeys could cost just 35 cents (27 pence) a mile.

A number of other businesses are looking to break into the so-called ‘robo-taxi’ market, including Uber and General Motors’ Cruise.

Automated assistance

Even if Tesla does manage to roll out fully self-driving cars in 2019 and robo-taxis start to take off, this technology will probably take a while to filter out to the majority of road users. At the moment, the cost of autonomous technology would make buying an autonomous car for personal use outside of most people's budgets. However, many new cars now have a variety of automated assistance features that make them a hybrid of traditional and driverless vehicles.

For example, lots of cars now come with autonomous parking systems that use on-board cameras and sensors to give a full picture of the area surrounding the car, meaning vehicles can manoeuvre unaided. Autonomous Emergency Braking is another increasingly common feature in vehicles. This technology monitors road conditions and applies the brakes automatically if required. Because many accidents are caused by late braking, this safety feature is helping to reduce risks on the highways.

UK government policy

As we highlighted in a previous blog, the government is taking steps to advance autonomous driving here in the UK. For example, in 2015 the Department for Transport established a Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles with £250 million in funding (matched by industry). The purpose of the centre is to position the country at the forefront of this technology, and more broadly to boost economic growth and help industry to develop efficient and safe systems to move people and goods around.

Speaking about the importance of this work, business and energy secretary Greg Clark said it will “revolutionise how we travel” and “open up and improve transport services for those who struggle to access both private and public transport”.

He added that the UK is building on its automotive strengths and heritage to develop new vehicles and technologies. According to the minister, by 2021 the public will be able to “experience the future for themselves” thanks to advances in this field.

Self-driving vehicle trials are underway in a number of areas across the UK, including Greenwich, Milton Keynes, Coventry and Bristol. It is hoped that autonomous cars will make our roads safer as over 90% of accidents involve human error. Key issues that need to be addressed from self-driving vehicle trials are how these cars react to pedestrians and how they interact with human drivers. Whilst the technology can be programmed to react to events in certain ways, it is a challenge for manufacturers developing autonomous cars to allow for all of the potential errors that human drivers might make on the roads. In addition, with different manufacturers creating their own autonomous vehicles, it may also be difficult for humans to predict what autonomous vehicles will do. These issues will need to be resolved before autonomous vehicles become widely accepted on UK roads. At the moment, autonomous technology is only really able to safely carry out tasks like parking and changing lanes. To maximise the potential of autonomous technology, money and time needs to continue to be invested into research and development in order to ensure that all road users are safe.

Watch this space

Given the level of interest and investment in this area of transport, we can expect to see major advances in driverless vehicles over the coming years. However, in terms of exactly how quickly the technology progresses, it’s very much a case of watch this space…

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