Cars have long been a symbol of freedom in American culture, but advances in technology promise to reshape exactly what that means. In coming years, cars could very well offer their "drivers" freedom from actually having to drive. Self-driving cars—also referred to as autonomous or driverless—can navigate without human input and could redefine transportation, cities, and countless tangential industries. While you’ve likely heard some chatter or watched a few YouTube videos about the technology, here are 10 things you may not know about driverless vehicles.<
1. WE'VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT SELF-DRIVING CARS SINCE THE 1930S.
The buzz surrounding self-driving cars has been growing lately, but the idea is far from novel. At the 1939 World's Fair in New York, GM’s Futurama exhibit included driverless technology—and experts were sure it would be a reality by the 1960s. Clearly, we’re a little behind.
In 2004, for example, a driverless car challenge made headlines because no vehicles were able to complete it. Tech and auto companies alike are optimistic that the time is near, though. Google is aiming to commercialize its self-driving cars by 2020, Elon Musk says Tesla should have a fully autonomous vehicle complete within two years, and experts expect the technology to be commonplace (and actually affordable to the average American) by 2040.
2. IN 2015, A CAR SUCCESSFULLY DROVE ITSELF ACROSS THE COUNTRY.
Auto supplier Delphi, which flies pretty under the radar compared to companies like Google and Tesla, showed off its driverless Audi last year. The Roadrunner drove from San Francisco to New York City, navigating 15 states and 3400 miles over the course of nine days. While a driver was behind the wheel just in case, the car reportedly tackled 99 percent of the trip.
3. YOUR CAR MAY ALREADY HAVE SOME SELF-DRIVING FEATURES.
While fully driverless technology isn't yet a reality for most of us, the line between standard cars and self-driving ones is blurring. More automakers are equipping models with the sensors, GPS, radar and laser technologies that enable automation; 10 million cars with self-driving features are expected to be on the road by 2020.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Association breaks out several levels of autonomous vehicles. In a nutshell, level zero has no automation while level four would actually turn a driver into a totally passive passenger.
On the spectrum are function-specific features like automatic breaking, lane keeping, and cruise control, considered level one. General Motors is set to offer a level two feature—meaning at least two function-specific automations work together—in its 2017 models. And level three means the driver can cede full control of the car in certain conditions, but must be occasionally available to take the wheel.
4. THE TECHNOLOGY ISN'T JUST FOR CARS.
GPS and sensor technology is being applied to tractors, mining trucks, cargo trucks, and more. Autonomous agriculture systems, which include self-driving tractors, have been in use since 2011, while two mines in Australia have been transporting all their goods with self-driving trucks since late last year.
Cargo trucks, which are aiming for level three automation, are at the forefront of vehicle to vehicle (V2V) technology. That’s when sensors between trucks communicate. The prominent application is platooning, which is when several trucks follow one another from a safe but close distance, dramatically improving fuel efficiency.
5. GOOGLE CURRENTLY HAS MORE THAN 50 SELF-DRIVING CARS ON THE ROAD.
The company's fleet [PDF] includes 22 Lexus SUVs fully equipped with autonomous technology and 33 smaller self-driving prototypes. These self-driving vehicles can be spotted on public streets in Mountain View and Austin, and have driven 1.4 million automated miles.
6. ORIGINALLY, GOOGLE'S SELF-DRIVING CARS WEREN'T GOING TO HAVE STEERING WHEELS.
When Google first announced its plans, project director Chris Urmson said the cars wouldn’t "have a steering wheel, accelerator pedal or brake pedal ... because they don't need them."
It seemed like those plans would have to change when the California DMV released draft rules requiring a steering wheel, brake pedal, and licensed operator. But some progress was made just this week.
Earlier this month, the National Highway Safety Association approved Google’s proposal for a car with “no need for a human driver.” While it said many regulations will have to be rewritten to address specific requirements—such as the need for and placement of a steering wheel and other controls—the ruling is seen as a huge step forward for the fully autonomous vehicles Urmson and his team are working toward.
7. THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT WANTS TO DROP $4 BILLION TO MAKE SELF-DRIVING CARS A REALITY.
Still, regulatory hurdles are expected to be one of the biggest bottlenecks to the adoption of driverless cars, especially considering variation between states. But the federal government is trying to front run that problem: Besides the NHTSA’s promising response to Google, the most recent budget proposal included proposed spending $4 billion over the next decade to test the technology and fast-track the creation of a regulatory framework.
The government is likely chomping at the bit to iron out the kinks since driverless technology promises to reduce carbon emissions, traffic congestion and car accidents.
8. MOST ACCIDENTS INVOLVING DRIVERLESS CARS HAVE BEEN A HUMAN'S FAULT.
All accidents involving Google’s driverless cars have been the result of human error; the first reported accident took place when a human-driven car rear-ended the driverless one. In fact, advanced driver assistance systems and autonomous vehicles are expected to reduce crashes by 90 percent. But they're not always successful. On March 17, 2018, one of Uber's driverless cars struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona.
9. SELF-DRIVING CARS COULD SAVE YOU $1000 ON CAR INSURANCE.
Based on Google’s no-fault history, insurance company MetroMile calculated that annual car insurance for a self-driving car would cost just $250. Director Jason Foucher added that, in a future where all vehicles on the road were fully autonomous, the car manufacturer would likely offer blanket product liability coverage, with the cost of insurance, repairs and warranty included in the purchase or lease price.
10. THE TECHNOLOGY IS BRINGING BACK AGE-OLD ETHICAL DEBATES.
The programming of autonomous vehicles is raising philosophical questions, the most popular of which is called “The Trolley Problem.” The debate is centered on worst-case scenarios: Should a self-driving car be programmed to protect the driver at all costs, or to do the least amount of damage possible?
Dr. Gregory Pence, a university philosophy chair, believes it’s unlikely a car can actually be programmed to handle all scenarios and make such a decision even if the debate were settled. But he stressed that such ethical questions still need to be considered early on in the creation and adoption of new technologies like autonomous vehicles.