Future Tech: Driverless cars

Will we ever really see it? T3 investigates...

Future questions answered, definitively

We’ve all been waiting for certain tech to be invented and, largely thanks to Hollywood, our hopes have been built and built but constantly dashed. So fed up without any actual answers, we’ve took it upon ourselves to answer 10 of the classic tech questions once and for all.

We'll be examining one future tech question a day, so first up under the microscope: Driverless cars.

What's the big idea?

No offence, but you're a dangerous driver. You jump red lights, break speed limits and you do these things because, well, you're just a human being. As such, we could face a driving ban in the not-too-distant future, replaced on the road by KIT-style cars that drive themselves. According to engineers building autonomous autos, they will save on traffic, fuel efficiency and the one million lives lost in road accidents each year.

What's happening right now?

Production cars already have autonomous windscreen wipers or braking systems that kick in when the car's onboard sensors detect an imminent crash. Autonomous parking is just around the bend, but in fact, true autonomous cars are already driving among us.

Last year Google admitted that its driverless cars, six Toyota Priuses and an Audi TT, have navigated some 140,000 miles around San Francisco using a combination of video systems, radar and GPS to stay away from other traffic and locate themselves on maps. Similar technology is found on the MIG (MadeinGermany), a Volkswagen Passat, developed at the Free University in Berlin and decked out with extras such as heat sensors and laser scanners. Its designer, Professor Raul Rojas says that we won't need to rebuild our traffic systems to accommodate such vehicles.

“Traffic lights could be standardized or be provided with radio transmitters. Other than that, the infrastructure does not have to be changed,” Rojas says. “That way the changes would be minimal.”

What's in the way of the future?

“The main technological barrier is recognizing people on the streets,” Rojas says. “People are unpredictable. While you can read what a pedestrian intends to do, because of their posture, their gaze direction or because you make eye contact, that's all too difficult for a computer.” The next roadblock is legal. Who is liable when something goes wrong? Who pays the insurance – you or the manufacturer? “Until this is solved you will only see autonomous cars in private roads or closed environments such as airports,” Rojas says. Finally, there's a psychological barrier: some people like driving. Prising Clarkson's fingers from the wheel of his Lamborghini will take a brave man.

When could we see it?

“In the next 10 years we will see autonomous cars in closed environments such as airports, factories and national parks,” says Rojas. “Systems for semi-autonomous navigation on the highway should be available in 15 years. Autonomy on the streets will take longer 20-30 years, until the legal issues are sorted out.”

Timeline: 2035

Top Gear’s crash-test expert Richard Hammond on driverless cars:

“Let’s not forget: there’s purely utilitarian driving to get to work, to drop the kids at school, to commute… that’s not the same as driving for fun. My Mustang is rubbish, but I love driving it, even if I then go and get in a pod later than day and go to work I don’t think the two need to be mutually exclusive. I don’t think anyone will be pursuing the driverless car because it’s fun, but I’m sure they will be because it’s practical.”

Stay tuned to T3.com for more future tech questions answered