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Self-Driving Cars: How Close Are We?

There has been a lot in the news lately regarding self-driving vehicles: how autonomous are they? What capabilities do they have? Will humans become obsolete when it comes to driving? One of the most common questions is: how close are we to having these kinds of cars on the road?

Twenty, even ten, years ago, the idea of self-driving cars seemed so far in the future that many people who currently drive thought there was little chance they would happen in their lifetime. Now, self-driving cars are becoming more of a reality as automakers and tech giants have promised to have autonomous cars on the road sometime between 2017 and 2020.

What level are we currently at?
Right now, there are many cars that have limited autonomy that does not depend on data, also considered stage one. For example, safety systems like 3D cameras and wave radar. Many cars have lane keeping/lane warning systems that help drivers stay in their lane by controlling steering or warning drivers as soon as they cross over a line. Cars have long had cruise control, but now people can set their speed based on the car in front of them, slowing or braking automatically to avoid crashes. Cars have also implemented cross traffic or blind spot detection using radar, cameras or ultrasonic sensors to see around corners.

Carmakers such as Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Tesla are testing driverless automobiles on public roads across the country, but these still require someone behind the wheel who can take control in case of an emergency, also known as stage three autonomous cars. The cars navigate the roads through an elaborate system of sensors, radars and front-facing cameras. However, many are not capable of negotiating through constructions zones or busy urban areas. This is when a human needs to take over either by grabbing the wheel or applying the gas or brake pedal. A number of automakers hope to have more of these types of cars available to the public in the next two to five years, and others have promised to release theirs in the next decade.

What does the future hold?
The idea of fully autonomous cars has many people hoping to break the monotony of long road trips. If the car is handling everything, then people should be able to read, watch movies or even nap while behind the wheel. Industry experts, however, say that kind of technology is still very far off, and cars will likely always need a driver to intervene in case of automation failures. Engineers want to avoid automation surprises (a term used in aviation), where people become dependent on the technology and are out of practice when they need to spring into action. There needs to be a good balance between the technological capabilities and the responsibilities of the driver.

Government regulation
While automakers and tech companies are making advances in the self-driving industry, the government is still determining the laws governing autonomous cars. The federal government has not specified laws pertaining to the topic, so states have been left to create their own directives. This makes it difficult for carmakers, because each state has different regulations. Until the federal agencies step in, it will be hard to widely sell autonomous cars.

Self-driving cars still have a ways to go before they become commonplace on roads. However, they are much closer than people previously expected, and there will likely be some high-end models available in the next decade, if not sooner.