Watch any decent cyberpunk sci-fi and there’s a consistent but perhaps overlooked element present in most of them; the self-driving car. Blade Runner, Demolition Man, Fifth Element, iRobot, the list goes on and on. We’ve been looking at not having to drive ourselves for decades, but now it’s looking like we may be heading towards actually seeing it as a reality.
Of course everyone knows about Google’s self driving cars which recently just passed the 300,000 mile mark in terms of distance travelled between the dozen or so vehicles that Google has on the road at any one time. When you divide that down that’s about 20,000 miles that each car has travelled, so far without an incident caused by the automatic systems. In both cases that the Google Driverless cars were involved in accidents, humans were involved. To maintain overwatch on the cars, they have a driver and a Google engineer in them as they drive, with the driver able to take control of the car at any time. In one of the incidents the car was being driven manually; in the other it was rear-ended by another driver.
Volvo have also just announced their own program of automated cars recently as well. Whilst not as immediately as ambitious as Google’s work, Volvo’s seems to be much more immediately applicable. They’ve announced a range of different features such as Cruise Control with steering, which is essentially smart cruise that allows the car to not only maintain a safe distance from the car in front of it, it also helps the driver steer with the road and can actively prevent lane drift and other issues that are common on highway driving. They’ve also got pedestrian and large animal collision detection, which uses radar and camera technology to detect people and animals at the side of the road, to warn drivers if they look like they will present a problem and even brake the car if the driver takes no action.
The final, and potentially coolest feature Volvo have been looking into is automated parking. Whilst in its infancy right now, the idea is that you get out of your car at your office and then, using your phone, tell your car to go park itself and it will toddle off to do just that. Then when you need it, you just use your phone to tell it to come to you and it’ll be waiting for you when you get out from work. The idea that in the future parking lots will be filled with driverless cars gliding around looking for spaces is perhaps a little creepy, but also rather awesome in another way. How these automated cars will deal with space snatching bastards is a question they’ve yet to answer.
What they will do though is open up yet another avenue for app developers. There are already multiple in car app development opportunities, but how cool would it be to be writing something that helps a car drive itself?
UPDATE 2017: Want to see how far self-driving cars have come since this article was written? Just take a look at Waymo, the Google car project.