Ford has recently announced that they will begin testing driverless cars in 2016. If you haven’t been keeping up with the development of driverless cars, that may seem exciting. If you have been keeping up, you may be wondering what took Ford so long. The auto company is just one in a long string of companies that includes Google, Tesla, Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen, Delphi, Bosch, Nissan and Cruise Automation, who which have all been test driving – or rather test-not-driving – their own autonomous vehicles around Palo Alto, California.
Ford had previously been working on driverless technology for a while, but this will be their first step toward trying out fully autonomous cars. The company has been testing their driverless tech at Mcity, a fake town designed specifically as a testing ground for autonomous vehicles by the University of Michigan. The town attempts to simulate a wide variety of realistic driving conditions that will put the cars through their paces.
Although Google is not a car maker, they have been on the leading edge of self-driving vehicle development. The tech giant is licensed for the largest fleet of driverless cars under the California DMV. This is less surprising if you consider the massive amount of images and data Google has collected from their street-view cars. The self-driving cars use databases of recorded images to determine their locations and then find their way around. Huge volumes of data and technical expertise have given Google a potential leg-up in the race, but innovative companies like Tesla Motors are not far behind.
The idea of self-driving cars is a little scary to some. People may fear malfunctions, or the cars’ inability to react and adapt like a human. Ironically, these cars are being developed precisely to remove the danger of human error from driving. Last year, 33,804 people died in motor-vehicle accidents, according to the Center for Disease Control. Humans haven’t proven themselves capable of avoiding accidents. With lots of testing and good design, it’s conceivable that automating the task of driving could prevent many accidents.
Technology that combines the ingenuity and flexibility of humans with the precision and accuracy of machines is the most helpful kind. Inventions seems to work best when they integrate the best qualities of humans and computers. These cars are just prototypes, so at this point it is unclear how humans and driverless cars will coexist. Still, knowing that the danger posed by drunk drivers or people falling asleep at the wheel could in large part be avoided should makes us all breathe a sigh of relief. The behavior of computers is predictable, and they don’t have lapses in judgement or make accidental mistakes. They do exactly what they are programmed to do.
Others may miss the feeling of grabbing the wheel and taking their ride out for a spin. Driving is an interest and a hobby as much as a necessity. I’m sure there will always be a market for human-operated vehicles, even if it’s not for the everyday commute. If driverless cars do end up working out and lowering the number of accidents, it wouldn’t make much sense for people to continue driving every day on the streets. But most manufacturers today still produce manual gearbox cars, so maybe human-operated vehicles will become a nostalgia market. I’m sure we’ll find ways to have our cake and eat it too.