What it is: Apple and other companies are researching self-driving cars, but the first step will be assisted-driving.
Google, Apple, Microsoft, Tesla, and practically every big auto maker has been touting their research into self-driving cars. The problem with self-driving cars is that it requires a huge step to go from driving cars ourselves to trusting computers to drive cars for us. As numerous accidents with self-driving cars show, self-driving car technology is still evolving. While it may be possible to ride safely in a self-driving car, the data needed to help self-drving cars navigate safely is still lacking.
Combine the early research of self-driving cars with customer reluctance to turn over driving duties to a computer and you can see that self-driving cars aren’t going to suddenly pop up and displace traditional cars any more than electric cars will suddenly displace gasoline powered cars.
The transition from gas engines to electric engines is through hybrids. This gives people the best of both worlds for now with electric power working with gas availability to insure that hybrids use less gas than traditional cars but have longer range than electric cars.
So what’s likely to occur in the near future isn’t the giant leap from traditional cars to self-driving cars, but from traditional cars to assisted-driving cars. In other words, people will still need to drive cars but computers can assist them and warn them of dangers. If the driver fails to slow down in time to avoid an accident, assisted-driving technology can step in and slam on the brakes automatically.
Assisted-driving technology is nearly identical to self-driving technology but with the driver still in control. Assisted-driving technology will simply make the transition smoother for the general public still suspicious of self-driving cars. In the meantime, assisted-driving technology can still collect crucial driving data to get “smarter” about driving. Just as cruise control lets drivers avoid pressing down on the accelerator themselves, so will assisted-driving technology allow drivers to hand off tedious aspects of driving to computers.
This will allow more data collection on real driving conditions while also improving safety. Seat belts and air bags protect passengers, but assisted-driving technology can help drivers avoid accidents in the first place by braking automatically or alerting drivers when obstacles are too close such as other vehicles. Many accidents occur when drivers simply fail to see danger such as a motorcycle coming from the blind side or another car suddenly running a stop sign or red light.
Assisted-driving technology can spot such dangers in night, fog, or other adverse weather conditions. Even during clear, sunny days, people often miss dangers around them, which is where assisted-driving technology can alert a driver and help avoid an accident. When people trust assisted-driving technology more and more, it will be an easy step to transition to self-driving cars.
So don’t look for self-driving cars to magically appear overnight any more than expecting electric cars to suddenly dominate the roads. Today, you see mostly gas powered cars with a lot of hybrids and far fewer electric cars. Tomorrow you can expect to see traditional cars with many more sporting assisted-driving technology and a handful being completely autonomous self-driving cars.
The self-driving car future is coming, but the path to that future will be through assisted-driving technology first.