We all know that self-driving cars are as real as this and this. And yet we can still hardly believe that they actually exist – because most of us haven’t had a chance to properly interact with them. Hyundai announced in April 2015 that it plans to mass-produce its first set of autonomous vehicles in 2020, with Google having projected a similar goal earlier.
The real question is whether 2020 is a realistic proposition. We’d wager that the answer is yes – indeed it is. Here are the reasons why:
Reason #1: The Technology is in Place
The autonomous driving technology that Google pioneered is complex, but it’s been tested and proven to work. It just needs to be mass-marketed.
Google’s driverless cars rely on a collection of detection technologies, including stereo cameras, sonar devices, lasers and a radar. If you you’ve seen Google’s autonomous Prius, you might have noticed such a system on the vehicle’s roof. It’s called “LIDAR” and, according to Google’s engineers, it’s the heart of object recognition. It can see up to 100 metres in all directions thanks to a Velodyne 64-beam laser that can rotate 360 degrees and take 1.3 million readings per second (or more). The reason why Google mounts one of these on top of a vehicle is to ensure its view isn’t obstructed.
In addition to this laser, Google cars also rely on regular cameras around the exterior in pairs with little separation between them. As a result, their fields of view overlap the same way our eyes do, allowing the system to judge an object’s distance in real time. As long as the car can spot an object with more than one camera, it will determine the object’s location.
While LIDAR can generate a very accurate map of the car’s surroundings, it doesn’t do well when it comes to monitoring the speed of other vehicles in real time. That’s what the radar is for – something that many modern vehicles already have. To make sure these systems are in sync with each other, Google cars rely on special software that uses the data from each device to map of the car’s position, taking into account everything within its immediate surroundings.
Autonomous driving technology can already be found in many modern vehicles, with functions like automatic braking, blind spot detection and collision avoidance already being very widespread.
Reason #2: The Competition is Fierce
While Google has spearheaded the research into autonomous driving, it’s not the only company to express interest in the technology.
Hyundai has recently announced that it will launch a self-driving feature in 2020. The automaker has even showed its first test subject – a self-driving Elantra – which was able to move without the driver’s interference. Now, how well this technology will operate in comparison to Google’s self-driving cars remains to be seen, but the fact that this capability is already on full display from more than one brand is a strong implication that it will become widely available very soon.
And let’s not forget that Google is also looking to bring its self-driving cars to market by 2020. Other automakers who are working on their versions of self-driving cars include General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Daimler AG (owner of the Mercedes-Benz brand) and Volkswagen AG. Google is confident that they can meet this deadline even in spite of any potential regulatory hurdles. Google’s self-driving car director, Chris Urmson, has stated that the company has been discussing the subject with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a major auto safety regular in the U.S., “from early on,” so it’s possible that the government will not get in the way. At least, not in the U.S.
Reason #3: The Plans are Already in Motion
Canada’s provincial governments are already closely monitoring the latest developments in the autonomous driving world, so we are optimistic about that it will all work out. In fact, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation has already decided to safely test-run several self-driving cars to make sure they can handle our climate. The province isn’t yet ready to discuss the authorization of these vehicles, but this is a fantastic first step. Other provinces, such as British Columbia, have also expressed interest in preparing for the arrival of this technology, so it’s possible that they will follow in Ontario’s footsteps and test these vehicles.
The U.S. is even more ready than Canada, with California already issuing permits to Google and other automakers who wish to place their self-driving vehicles on public roads. The U.K. has recently launched an investigation of autonomous cars too, with plans to change its current legislation by 2017.
Since governments are already showing interest in the subject and 2020 is five years away, it’s not all that difficult to believe that the regulations will be there to allow self-driving cars to thrive. Canada is definitely behind the U.S. and U.K. on this one, but there’s still plenty of time to catch up.
The next few years should prove to be quite interesting.