As the world hurtles on towards the next decade of the 21st century, technology continues to advance by leaps and bounds, changing our lives in ways we never thought possible. It should come as no surprise to anybody that cars, just like phones, are undergoing some pretty heavy-duty changes right now.
While cars are certainly fancier now than they might have been fifty years ago, up until very recently, they really haven’t changed all that much. Most cars still run on some sort of fossil fuel, they’ve still got a steering wheel and a driver, and in many parts of the world driving shift is still pretty standard. Even a time-traveler from the ‘20s would definitely recognize a car today with little difficulty.
That said, the next few years are going to be crucial in terms of shaping how the world gets around. Car companies from around the world have made pledges to bring self-driving cars to the masses by the next decade. Ford has made the bold declaration that by 2021, it will be introducing autonomous vehicles to the public via a ride-sharing service. We’re talking totally self-driving cars here, folks. That time-traveler from the 20s might see the body of a car, but would probably have a fit when he or she sees who’s driving it – nobody at all.
2021: The End of Steering (Wheels)
While features like cruise-control and even Tesla’s auto-pilot mode have been around long enough for most people to get used to, Ford’s proposal is to take self-driving vehicles to the next level… to Level 4, to be precise.
Level 4 is a classification given to highly autonomous vehicles by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), based in the US. These are cars that have no steering wheels, gas or brakes. With $75 million dollars invested in LiDar technology, which detects objects using lights, as well $6.6 million dollars invested in digital mapping company Civil Maps, Ford is breaking away from being purely focused on automobiles. This is because the future of cars lies in technology.
How Will Self Driving Cars Work?
The Ford cars of the future will not be released for sale to the general public immediately. The plan is to introduce the world to the autonomous cars by way of a ride-sharing service. The idea is that Ford’s driverless cars will operate within closed city boundaries, pre chosen by the company and plotted out well before hitting the streets.
This is because Level 4 vehicles are only fully and safely autonomous under the right conditions. The cars of 2021 will be used for predetermined cities under safe weather conditions, and will operate much like Uber does. They will essentially be available to the public via an on-demand driverless taxi service.
That said, for those of you hoping to get a driverless Ford Transit Connect, the next step of the plan is to eventually allow consumers to purchase the vehicles for themselves. The cars would undoubtedly have to be classified as Level 5 for this to be the case – that is, able to operate under any condition, city or highway.
The Lay of the Land
Of course, Ford isn’t the only company on the block aiming to get driverless cars on the road by the next decade.
Everybody knows that Tesla has been pretty aggressive about wanting to get driverless technology out in the roads as soon as possible. While their cars are technically considered to be equipped with Level 2 autonomous driving capabilities, most drivers treat the technology as though it were Level 3. Level 3 means not constantly being in control of the driving situation, but rather being ready to step in just in case. Other companies have shied away from offering Level 3-like technology, as they don’t view it as being quite safe.
Google is known for having a fleet of self-driving vehicles for executive use within their private grounds. This includes 21 Lexus SUVs, 33 smaller pod-like cars, and they’ve just made a deal with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to throw in a 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans into the lot. That said, they don’t seem to be bent on providing vehicles to the general public just yet… but who knows? A lot can happen in four years.
Like Ford, Volvo has pledged to get autonomous vehicles onto the road by the next decade. Their plan is to launch a self-driving system known as Intellisafe Autopilot. This isn’t total autonomy, but it’ll allow cars to go driverless under certain conditions and on particular routes. They’ve also signed a $300-million deal with Uber to co-develop self-driving vehicles, in addition to the autonomous Volvo XC90s they already provide to the tech company.
GM – Lyft: driverless taxis (Autonomous On-Demand Network)
Volvo isn’t the only company pairing up with ridesharing tech companies. General Motors has teamed up with Lyft, investing $500-million dollars in order for the two companies to create an Autonomous On-Demand Network. This will allow users to continue using the Lyft platform, in addition to developing autonomous vehicles for the company’s future use.
The Renault-Nissan Alliance is also planning on introducing 10 models of autonomous cars in the near future. Their vehicles will probably be classed as Level Two or Three, as they are aiming to create cars smart enough to drive themselves, but only insofar as it is safe, at which point a driver would be alerted to take over. They are aiming to expand driverless testing in Tokyo by 2020.
BMW has jumped on the trend of partnering up with tech companies in order to accelerate the development of autonomous vehicles. With Intel and Mobileye, the three companies aim to release a range of cars boasting different levels of control. They hope to have 40 BMW 7-series out for testing later on this year, with the aim of having the model available for purchase by 2021.
Autonomous Driving… Are Americans Ready?
It’s obvious that car companies around the world are ready to take on the challenge of bringing autonomous vehicles to the market. While being buzzworthy may be one reason, they’re also intent on safety. That said, are Americans truly ready for totally self-driving vehicles?
A small surveyed comprised of 618 people seems to indicate that 2/3 of the participants were moderately concerned or very concerned about fully autonomous vehicles. In fact, less than 16% of the participants had any desire to ride in such a car.
That said, Uber has already launched somewhat self-driving vehicles into circulation in Pittsburgh (with an employee at the helm just in case), so it’s clear that this isn’t just some trend. Judging by the investment trends and research and development goals of most big car companies, it’s safe to say that autonomous vehicles are the future of driving.