Self-Driving Cars – Is the Future Now?

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Over the past several years, I’ve been seeing articles about self-driving cars. There has been some progress along with a few hiccups. So, realistically speaking, how far are we from actually getting self-driving cars?

The Concept

Who is working on these self-driving cars? Well, just about everyone. Companies like Ford, Volvo, and BMW are working hard towards finding a solution to our decades-long dream. It is also no secret that Elon Musk has a few visions of what the future might hold and has his own experiments with Tesla. However, Musk’s statements about how close we are to having the product are misleading, as a researcher at MIT by the name of Bryan Reimer claims. According to him, nearly a quarter of the people surveyed on the topic of driverless vehicles believe that the vehicles are already available.

The original idea is to have a car that can take you anywhere. But what does that entail? As it happens, there are actually five stages in AI development for the car that can drive itself. Level 1 and Level 2 of the automation process still have the driver in control or at least monitoring the situation and being ready to respond quickly if need be. We are somewhere here, though not yet commercially.

Level 3 automation is tricky, as it gives almost complete control to the AI with some human input regarding traffic conditions and the like. Level 4 is aimed at complete AI control but in a somewhat restricted environment. This means that the vehicle won’t run on unsafe roads, in certain unmapped areas, or during problematic weather conditions. Finally, there’s Level 5 – the real and complete automation.

So, When?

That depends on what you are looking for. If you want a car that is also your personal chauffeur, prepare for disappointment – the fully automated driverless cars won’t be around for a few decades. The reason for this is that there are too many factors to account for that the AI is not yet ready for. There are many different types of road and scenarios in traffic that most humans can’t even think of. And yet, human drivers tackle these with few to no issues, depending on their driving experience.

However, all is not lost, as we have some form of self-driving vehicles already on our roads. That being said, they operate in restricted environments and are not the equivalent of Uber just yet. There are shuttles in Detroit, for example, where there is a driver present just in case, but the car is the one getting you to your destination. They can go for about a mile or two in order to transport you to a train station nearby. We also have farming machines that need very little human input.

In addition to that, there are pilot versions of robot deliveries and campus roundabouts. However, the long-haul trucks and taxi services are, I believe, at least a decade away. GM, Honda, and other car companies are officially predicting that they will have a driverless car in a few years, but this is a really optimistic and ambitious goal for them. I guess that, for now, we still have to be the ones behind the wheel.