Road to a driverless future

They may still be a work in progress, but driverless cars are leading us towards a future where taxi drivers are out of a job and no one holds the role of designated driver on a night out. Car companies like Lexus, BMW and Mercedes are developing this innovative technology in a race to release the first commercial self-driving car.

Until recently, driverless cars were reserved for sci-fi films, but soon the roads could be covered in our ‘Batmobile’ equivalents. Tesla estimates that its cars, with “full self-driving” capabilities, should be available before the end of next year. 

They may still seem an entirely futuristic prospect, but the first research on these vehicles was conducted in around 1500. Admittedly a much simpler concept, limited in possibility and not needing as many safety precautions, Leonardo da Vinci designed a self-propelled cart. This cart is sometimes considered to be the world’s first robot as it could move without being pushed or pulled. Steering was set in advance to determine its path – a method not too dissimilar to our future cars.

Much later, in 1933, the development of autopilot systems meant that aircraft used in long flights were able to fly without pilots continuously having to control the plane. Sperry Gyroscope Co. was the company that designed the first autopilot prototype, and gyroscopes still play a huge part in driverless vehicle technology.

An important first step in developing the safety of driverless cars arose in 1987, when German engineer Ernst Dickmanns installed cameras and 60 micro-processing modules onto a saloon to enable it to detect other objects on roads. Using them at the front and back of the vehicle, the system was programmed to only focus on relevant objects. Driverless cars use this to ensure that, when on the road, they can spot hazards and prevent crashes. However, after a pedestrian was killed by a driverless Uber car in 2018, questions were raised into whether this new technology will ever be safe enough. While they hold the potential to prevent accidents caused by human error, if both manual and autonomous cars are using the road at the same time, there is a higher chance of one acting in a way the other doesn’t expect, increasing the chances of collisions.

Currently, the closest most have got to testing the transport of tomorrow is using autopilot – a feature that Tesla introduced to its vehicles in 2015. Somewhere between manual and driverless, this hands-free tool for motorway travel was provided as a single software update for drivers. Overnight, customers were able to experience just a taste of the freedom that driverless cars will provide.

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