The low down on self-driving cars

Posted by: Cal on 19/08/2014

Category: General

Nowadays you can get cars with Park Assist so you don't have to focus on steering when you head to your local supermarket carpark. Combined with the reviews of Google's self-driving car it appears we are in the midst of a vehicular revolution.

So, what do you need to know about this breed of cars? Will we be seeing them on the mean streets of Australia in the years to come? Can they perform their own tyre maintenance? Here are the answers to all your pressing questions.

How far away are they?

Google has already unveiled its autonomous vehicle, with a May 28 article by the BBC saying the car has no controls, steering wheel or pedals. Instead "drivers" only have a stop/go button.

"We're really excited about this vehicle - it's something that will allow us to really push the capabilities of self driving technology, and understand the limitations," Chris Urmson, director of the company's self-driving project told the BBC.

Trials have seen this car hit the road already, although it is unclear when similar vehicles will be available in the mainstream.

Technology Review stated in a July 24 article that it could be decades before these cars hit the road. 

What is it like on the road?

Reuter's Paul Ingrassia took Google's car out for a test drive and an article published on August 17 has revealed much about what we can expect.

He described his trip as "unremarkable" stating that the car stopped at red lights when required and provided a smooth and quiet ride.

Ingrassia spoke to Google's 'Lead Test Driver,' Bruan Torcellini about the car. Torcellini sat in the driver's seat, ready to revert to manual control if required. However, this was not needed during the 25 minute test drive, according to Ingrassia. 

How does it work?

This car appears in some ways similar to a model that you or I might drive, featuring a body as well as a set of car tyres. However, one of the fundamental differences is in the technology.

To drive this car, you simply enter the destination into a laptop wirelessly connected to the car. The car then maps out your route and you're off.

There are plenty of onboard sensors to monitor how close other cars are getting to you. This can engage your brakes so you stop in time to avoid a collision.

The car steers, stops and starts itself so you can sit back and relax. It even sticks to the speed limit, so you stay safe. 

At this stage they are electric and programmed to travel no faster than 40 kmh and can only seat two people. 

Who would be legally liable in an accident?

There is some debate about who would be responsible for any injury or damage caused after an accident.

After all, the car itself would be driving. The manufacturers have made claims that the cars are safe and Google's version certainly has an impeccable safety record.

A report by Lloyd's entitled Autonomous vehicles, Handing Over Control: Opportunities and Risks for Insurance, suggests the legal and regulatory framework will need to change drastically to make provision for the latest developments in technology.

This is particularly the case if these cars drive with no occupants.

Currently, liability rests with the user of the car, whether their actions cause the accident or not. 

If defective technology is to blame for the accident, this must be proved and pursued legally.

Another argument is that the user ultimately can take manual control of the car, so should therefore be legally responsible for the actions it takes as he or she could stop it and take control at any time. 

The argument may play out more when these cars are closer to being released in the mainstream world.