It may seem like self-driving cars belong in the distant future. After all, we all still have to keep our eyes on the road when sitting behind the wheel, and it’s hard to imagine a world where that’s no longer necessary. But are we much closer to a reality where our cars do all the hard work for us than we think?
What Is A Self-Driving Car?
Let’s start by defining exactly what we mean when we talk about a self-driving car. While the name may seem pretty self-explanatory, it’s important to know that there exists a classification of cars with self-driving features.
This classification is split into six levels – from Level 0, which entails zero automated features, to Level 5, which is full automation. A Level 5 car would be able to function without a human driver present.
What Are The Benefits Of Self-Driving Cars?
Self-driving cars have the capacity to reduce many of the problems associated with driving these days. According to a report by the European Commission, human error is a contributing factor in about 95 % of car accidents. Self-driving vehicles would therefore considerably reduce the number of accidents. Furthermore, self-driving technologies would mean that cars become far more accessible to elderly people and people with reduced mobility. Self-driving cars would also produce fewer emissions thanks to more efficient driving patterns. Lastly, self-driving cars promise to create many new jobs and generate huge profits: According to an analysis by the European Commission, the EU automotive industry stands to make 620 billion euros by 2025. The Department for Transport in the UK estimates that the industry could create almost 40,000 new jobs.
Are There Any Self-Driving Cars On The Roads Already?
Several car manufacturers have started developing more or less advanced self-driving technologies already. For instance, the German automaker Audi was set to release its most advanced driver-assist system yet: the Traffic Jam Pilot. The system, designed to take over the steering, accelerating and braking functions when driving on a motorway would have been considered Level 3. However, Audi gave up on releasing the Traffic Jam Pilot in 2020 because of regulatory issues. Governments still had not come up with the proper regulatory framework necessary to introduce cars with more advanced self-driving functions to public roads.
In April, however, the UK announced that it is working on drawing up regulations for self-driving cars, making it the first country to do so. This means that we could see vehicles with autonomous functions on British motorways as soon as the end of 2021. Indeed, the Department for Transport hopes to start with cars equipped with Automated Lane Keeping System (ALKS), which is a Level 3 function. In the early stages, this driver-assist function would remain quite limited: it could only be used on motorways while doing under 60 kph, so only in traffic or during slow periods.
Problems With The Approval Of Self-Driving Cars
The main obstacle to the widespread introduction of self-driving cars is regulation. Indeed, the problem with Level 3 autonomous features, which still require a human driver to be present and paying attention, is that it is difficult to attribute blame should an accident occur. Would it be the driver’s fault for not resuming control of their vehicle in a timely fashion? Or would the vehicle manufacturer be to blame?
For this reason, some experts believe it would be more straightforward to jump straight to developing Level 5 self-driving cars, which don’t exist in the same grey area that Level 3 systems do. That’s not to say that Level 5 autonomous cars don’t face any regulatory challenges. Article 8 of the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, which was ratified in 1968 by 83 countries, states that the driver should always be fully in control of their vehicle. However, some people maintain that Article 8 does not prohibit the use of self-driving cars, as the term “control” is not defined.
Regardless, the widespread use of self-driving cars is dependent on legislation catching up to technology. Even if autonomous cars are approved for use on public roads, they will still have to grapple with public opinion. Indeed, their success will also depend on people trusting that they are safe and reliable, both to ride in and to share the roads with.
Looking To The Future
Despite the regulatory challenges that self-driving cars face, many are hopeful that this technology will soon become the norm. In 2019, Violeta Bulc, the European Commissioner for Transport at the time, said: “By 2030, we believe we will have the new generation of vehicles that will be fully automated.” Meanwhile, the Department for Transport in the UK judges that up to 40 % of vehicles will be equipped with at least some self-driving functions by the year 2035.