Not too long ago the concept of a self-driven car was something from a science fiction movie. However, things have changed dramatically and it is estimated by 2020 - 4 years from now - there will be 10 million cars on the road that have self-drive features! Mercedes, BMW, and Tesla have already released cars with self-driving features. Google has also produced a self-driving car and rumours are rife that Apple is about to do the same.
By way of definition, a self-driving car is any car that has features which allow it to accelerate, brake or steer with little or no driver interaction. At the moment self-drive cars are divided into two types. Semi-autonomous and fully autonomous. Fully autonomous cars can drive from point A to B, navigating the entire range of road conditions and scenarios without needing any interaction from you the driver. Reports indicate that these vehicles will be on the roads in 2019. The ultimate goal is to have a completely driverless car. Things are moving fast, and in the UK for example, the Department of Transport has already put a framework in place to accommodate these cars on their roads.
There are obviously some really great benefits from these vehicles. In Pretoria/Johannesburg we currently spend 11 days driving a year! Imagine using that time more productively. Imagine a long road trip where you don't have to stop every two hours to refresh, or being able to sleep all the way! Overnighting to Cape Town may become attractive again. Think about safety. Human error is estimated to be a factor in over 90% of collisions. Failing to look properly, misjudging other road users, being distracted, being in too much of a hurry being some of the issues. Self-drive cars wont make these mistakes. They use a range of sensors which constantly monitor their surroundings avoiding these types of errors.
There is a lot of work happening in the US, UK, Europe and Japan to get clarity on liabilities. There needs to be greater certainty around criminal and civil liabilities in the event of a self-drive car being in a collision. In most countries the consensus is that these issues would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis by the courts. There will also have to be regulations around how these vehicles can be used and maintained and what constitutes roadworthiness. These discussions are in an advanced state in many parts of the world.
When these cars arrive on the streets they are going to disrupt several areas. Here is a brief list I made: driving schools, car design & manufacturing, insurance industry, auto repair shops, mechanics, taxis, public transport. Can you think of any others?
One thing is for sure when these cars go mainstream, and they will, the way we get around is going dramatically change!