What once seemed like a far-off dream is quickly becoming a reality. The race to have the first driverless car on the road was just a discussion initially, and now we have three companies leading the charge; Google, Uber, and Tesla.
For those of us who hate driving, this new technology can’t come soon enough. For many of us, however, we’re skeptical of what this could mean for our safety.
Take Tesla, for example. Just this past June, Tesla had their first driver killed while in a vehicle operating the self-driving software. The 40-year-old Ohio resident was driving the vehicle on a Florida freeway when he was hit by a tractor trailer.
According to the statement released by Tesla, “This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated. Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles.”
Tesla’s Autopilot software is meant to be used only as a driving assistance, and your hands should be kept on the steering wheel, ready to take over at any point. The software frequently checks that your hands are on the wheels, and makes visual and audible alerts if the hands aren’t detected.
After the incident in June, you would think the race toward driverless cars would slow down a bit. Not the case. According to Elon Musk, the driverless cars are currently in production, meaning they’ll be available to consumers in months, not years.
While hearing about these developments make it seem more real, this topic is closer to home than we think. In August, three car crashes involving Google self-driving cars occurred in Chandler, AZ. Google expanded its driving program into Arizona just last year to tests the cars response to dust storms and golf-cart crossings in the metro Phoenix area.
With all three Chandler accidents caused by the other driver, Google is finding that it is careless drivers, not dust storms or golf courses, that is hurting their testing. Additionally, one of the three crashes involved a drunk driver, causing Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to release a statement saying, “MADD strongly supports advanced vehicle technologies, including autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles, because of their potential to stop drunk driving and save lives.”
Whereas Tesla has logged 130 million miles in Autopilot mode, Google has logged just 1.9 million, putting them quite a ways behind Tesla. Uber, however, is the most new to the race. Having just rolled out their driverless cars in Pittsburg last week, each Uber vehicle will have a driver behind the wheel and an engineer in the front seat. They will also be picking up riders.
Regardless of the company, each software seems to be encountering the same hurdles, some of which include: crossing bridges and pathways, extreme weather, plants, and disappearing obstacles (such as a person crossing the road).
The biggest issue, however, is having the company of human-operated cars on the road. While the goal for most of these companies is to see a road filled entirely with driverless cars, for the time being, the road will be a combination of both. The biggest hurdle then is to figure out how the Autopilot software will interact with the chaotic nature of human driving.
It will be a while, if ever, before driverless cars take over entirely. Until then, however, we must recognize that these vehicles are on the road, even in our own neighborhood. Being extra cautious to follow driving laws will help protect both you and the self-driving vehicle.
*Feature photo taken by WESCO employee, Spencer Fry, in Tempe, AZ.