Science

Self-driving cars on the roads by 2020

Back to the Future Day last month showed us just how inaccurate a lot of old predictions in vehicular technology have been over the years. But one oft-predicted feature of the motoring world is getting ever closer to becoming reality. Nissan, Toyota and Honda are three car manufacturers that have announced plans to put driverless or autonomous cars on the roads by 2020.

As evident by the recent changes in finish date for the new BBC Wales headquarters, estimated dates are not always entirely accurate, but 2020 is a date Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn is fairly confident about. Talking about the technology at the recent Tokyo Motor Show, he said: “It compensates for human error, which causes more than 90 per cent of all car accidents. As a result, time spent behind the wheel is safer, more efficient and more fun.” This is such a hotly debated issue that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe participated in Japan’s first autonomous driving test earlier this month. Requirements for safety improvements are also voiced by Hideki Kimura, an engineering professor at Tokai University, who stated that car accidents were often the result of drivers that were elderly or had dementia.

But it’s not quite as simple as autonomous cars automatically creating safer roads. Toyota executive Moritaka Yoshida has said that it will be impossible for technology to advance without the trust of drivers. The technology has not become advanced enough to pick up on small signs such as looks, hand gestures or verbal interactions between motorists. As part of the Tokyo show, Ghosn agreed with these comments: “Today, you have to drive with your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel. If the regulation doesn’t change, having a self-driving car will be totally useless.”

The very first ideas of the autonomous car stretches all the way back to 1925, less than 40 years after Karl Benz first invented the first petrol-powered car in 1886. Houdina Radio Control demonstrated the radio-controlled driverless car known as Iinrrican Wonder across the streets of New York City. In the 1980s, the world saw the first self-sufficient and strictly autonomous cars in the form of Carnegie Mellon University’s Navlab and ALV projects in 1984 and Mercedes Benz and Bundeswehr University’s Eureka Prometheus Project in 1987. 2013 was another big turning point for self-driving vehicles, following US legislation in four states permitting autonomous cars. In 2015 it seems like every few months there’s a big news story relating to the vehicles, from Tesla announcing AutoPilot technology to Google revealing their test vehicles were involved in 14 minor accidents since the inception of their 2009 project.

There’s quite a history of autonomous cars, but that should be nothing compared to its near future. Consultancy firm AT Kearney has estimated that the autonomous car industry will be worth £370 billion by 2035. Furthermore, expert members of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers have estimated that by 2040, 75 per cent of all vehicles will be autonomous. It seems like autonomous cars are making progress into becoming a regular part of our lives, but that progress doesn’t seem like it can be rushed.

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