Of all of the once-futuristic technology now on the cusp of hitting the consumer market, autonomous cars are one of the most exciting — and most controversial. It’s easy to see why the thought of self-driving cars crowding our highways can incite both joy and panic. Our roads are dangerous enough as it is without the addition of something that could malfunction, run out of battery or be hacked. But regardless of the fears and cautious thinking, autonomous cars are ready to become a real thing.
With companies like Uber, Google (Alphabet, Inc.), and GM rushing to get autonomous cars on the road by 2020, the future of personal transportation is not far off. What will change when the technology finally does hit the road?
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Ridesharing Will Become More Commonplace
The first major change we are likely to notice is in ridesharing and other driver-based services. Uber Technologies, which has most recently been in talks with Fiat Chrysler about a driverless car partnership, is one of the many tech and automotive companies trying to stake their claim in this market now to come out ahead when it booms. One reason Uber has so much interest in the technology is because of the way it can potentially transform their ridesharing service.
Because autonomous technology aims to make driving safer and more efficient, it becomes ideal for ridesharing services like Uber. This is why a hefty bulk of autonomous cars hitting the market in the early years will likely be owned by Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing services. You’ll still have a driver who you pay — fully autonomous cars are still not in the foreseeable future — but, if the technology works as it should, there will be far fewer seat-gripping one-star rides from questionable drivers. Ridesharing will become a safer and smoother experience for everyone involved.
Less Driving, More Productivity
As the technology advances and truly driverless cars emerge — that is, autonomous cars capable of navigating both on and off the highway without a human — we will probably still see the majority of autonomous car technology being used by businesses. Amazon, for instance, is already looking at driverless cars as an alternative to drones in same-day package deliveries in their larger markets. Microsoft, on the other hand, has plans to turn driverless cars into mobile offices, so that hard-working employees can make their commutes more productive. If they achieve this goal then we could see major corporations around the country providing their employees with these mobile offices to boost productivity.
No More Split-Second Decisions?
On the consumer end, the biggest change we will see immediately, assuming that the autonomous car technology does what it is intended to do, is fewer accidents on the highways. Just think, how many rear-end collisions could be avoided each year if you took human reaction time out of the equation and replaced it with the near-instantaneous reaction of a computer? Not only will reaction time no longer be a factor on the road, but other human limitations such as impaired vision, offensive driving habits and inattentiveness — not to mention alcohol impairment — are eliminated as causes of accidents as well. This is the promise of the autonomous car.
But there is a downside to this proposed safety feature: the limitations of the technology itself. Just because the car is driving on its own does not mean a human is no longer required. Until the technology is perfected, drivers will need to be ready to take back control of the vehicle should anything go wrong. When drivers are sleeping, working, watching movies or drunk in the backseat, they may not be prepared to respond in time to keep the car from losing control or slamming into the car in front of them. What could have been a minor fender-bender, had someone been actively driving the car, could turn into a fatal collision when a driver hands responsibility over to the computer and stops paying attention to what’s going on around them.
As scary as this sounds, however, it will only be a matter of time before the technology can be developed to the point that these vehicles will be able to drive autonomously anywhere and everywhere, and the safety precautions built in will essentially eliminate accidents like these regardless of what the car’s human occupant is doing. When this happens, could we see a virtual end to car accidents?
It’s hard to answer that for sure. But what we can say is that some of the major players in automotive manufacture in the US—Ford, Fiat Chrysler, GM, BMW—together with major tech companies like Google, Uber and Amazon are already working hard to make autonomous cars not just a reality, but the norm. A recent study predicted that there will be 21 million autonomous cars on the road by 2035 — less than twenty years from now, and, with such well-established and innovative companies driving this technology, it’s not hard to believe that this will happen.
The age of the autonomous car is coming very soon. Will you be ready for the self-driving revolution?