Self-Driving Cars aren’t arriving in the future – they’re already here.
From the beginning, the idea of a self-driving car has resonated with our human desire to chill at all costs. Google and Tesla are manufacturing their own fleets of branded robo-cars. While Uber has plans to turn your existing car into an autonomous vehicle. The truth is, with no regulations and no current system of liability, no one knows what the future holds for self-driving cars . . . and the future is happening right now.
The first self-driving vehicle appears in the sketchbooks of Leonardo DaVinci. His spring-powered cart could “navigate” through a track of wooden blocks. The earliest model of DaVinci’s cart was built in 1748.
Zooming ahead in time, General Motors pushed the concept of an automated car early and often with it’s FireBird Series in the 1950’s. The look didn’t catch on, but this version of automated driving built upon the success of DaVinci – the FireBird controlled steering by following a specially painted track on the road. Although the automated guidance feature was fresh, the FireBird was too futuristic looking. Thankfully, the self-driving car of the future may look very familiar.
Google and Tesla are currently in a manufacturing arms race to build fleets of branded, autonomous cars. Each company is investing millions in design, software, hardware, infrastructure, lobbying efforts, and research and development. But the self-driving cars of the future may not look like Google’s computer pods, or Tesla’s sleek robo-roadsters. Indeed, the car of the future may be your Honda Civic; just with a few special “enhancements.”
Uber’s version of self-driving cars, hitting the streets last month in Pittsburgh, are current model year Volvos that have been enhanced. Through an added on “kit” containing GPS, radar, and guidance capabilities that can see through solid objects, the Volvo of today magically becomes the smart car of tomorrow.
Otto, a self-driving technology company founded by ex-Googlers, recently announced plans to release similar kits later this year. Their version attaches to any existing 16 wheel truck, making it autonomous within hours. Uber recently acquired Otto for over $600 million.
The idea of self-driving cars has never been closer to reality. But many critics of the robot revolution on the roadways are unable to ignore the pending obstacles and the imminent dangers the technology presents. Most critics envision self-driving cars hitting the roads five, maybe even ten years in the future. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick begs to differ. “We are going commercial,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek last month. “This can’t just be about science.”
Some governments, like UK and New Zealand, are working on plans that accept autonomous vehicles on their roadways as early as 2017. In contrast, places known for their exotic traffic patterns, like India, Vietnam, and Rome – have significant obstacles in their way when it comes to allowing robot motorists on their streets. And what about insurance for your robot chauffeur? Does anyone have a plan for that?
“When it comes to self-driving cars and accidents, the questions of insurance and who’s to blame, or liable, seem to be the most pressing,” says Richard Rose, senior partner at The Sawaya Law Firm. He points to a scenario just last month in Texas, where a man driving a Tesla in auto-pilot mode, crashed into a fence. “The driver may have admitted fault,” says Rose, “but that’s not stopping the insurance company from launching an inspection of the car, introducing the prospect of a suit against Tesla.” Does that mean higher premiums for self-driving car owners? More lawsuits against smart-car manufacturers for defects? We will have these answers soon – but at what cost?
From the 1700’s to today, we’ve always been interested in innovation, and self-driving technology will ultimately make our roads safer. But the automation of transportation raises serious questions, that have yet to receive solid answers. And with new state laws passed just this week, eliminating the requirement that a human operator be present when testing autonomous cars, the reality of our automated future may soon be pulling around your corner.