Who is That Behind the Wheel?

It's interesting how things that once seemed impossible may now become possible.  During the 20th century, we saw a lot of technological changes -- cars, refrigeration, the microwave, washers and dryers, TV and the internet. And we even put a man on the moon.

Now, autonomous vehicles -- or known as driverless cars -- are the latest technology in the 21st century. You are not dreaming, and you are not in the movie "I. Robot" (2004) or "Minority Report" (2002). This is happening now. Autonomous cars involve a rapidly changing technology that, in the next decade, could change the way we travel on a day-to-day basis. Many transportation analysts are now predicting this technology will be ready for widespread use in five years.   

So, why all fuss? Sure, we all can see the benefit of relaxing in a car's passenger seat while drinking a latte on a morning commute. But is this practical and realistic? If someone had told you in 19th century that one day people would be using a small, hand-held device and talk to people all over the world, you would have been called nuts. But look at where we are today. People use smartphones and tablets to communicate with people all over the world and it all started with an idea. Just like this one.

 In the news, we hear about Google and Uber testing driverless cars, but other automakers are jumping on board. Recently, Elon Musk announced Tesla is working on a "practical autopilot system" for the Model S. Volvo with plans to pilot driverless cars on the roads of Gothenburg, Sweden, later this year. Nissan recently announced that it would begin selling driverless cars in 2020.  BMW has been testing driverless cars in Munich. Some are now saying that driverless cars -- which experts are saying will vastly improve highway safety -- will eliminate the need for insurance. Last year, 10 teams, each with two cars, competed in a series of one-hour races over the Formula E championship season, calling it a "battle of algorithms." The driverless race cars can hit speeds of 186 mph. 

While the trend toward autonomous vehicles is moving, several hurdles must be overcome and a main one is safety. Many companies report being able to overcome a lot of the safety issues with technological advances, but it could take decades to overcome the last issues such as changing lanes, reading signage and responding to traffic signals. In late March, an accident in Arizona involved a driverless Uber car --  no one was injured and the driverless vehicle was not at fault -- resulting in Uber suspending operations until an investigation has been conducted and reviewed.

Once the technological barriers are overcome, next are concerns about cost. Obviously, the costs will be well over what the average consumer can purchase, with a price tag of over $200,000 per vehicle. Even so, driverless cars will still have a specialty market like many cars built by billionaires today. 

Finally, a big hurdle will be legal and regulatory issues. Nevada, California and Florida, as well as Washington, D.C., have legalized driverless cars. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) is still only in the initial research phase of establishing standards for driverless cars and with approval expected to take up four years. At present, the NHTSA doesn't recommend allowing driverless cars on the roads, except for testing, but it does have a stake in the market.  In 2016, the federal government invested $4 billion for driverless car research and development over 10 years. 

The world of computers and information technology has become a part of our lives, it has changed the way we communicate with each other and now it will change the way we travel.