If you’re anything like me, you were a Hasselhoff fan long before his days of running around LA beaches rescuing people. “The Hoff” got his big break playing the lead role in Knight Rider while riding in his souped-up, artificially intelligent 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am dubbed the “Knight Industries Two Thousand” – otherwise known as KITT. The series only lasted a few years, but the impressions it left on young minds of a vehicle that could drive itself are still felt today.
While the idea of an artificially intelligent car that could drive itself was a bit far-fetched in the 80’s, it made for good (or mediocre…or bad – depending on your opinion) television. It has been three decades since we saw the likes of KITT, and driverless cars are now a real and likely possibility. Currently, technologies such as active cruise control, lane keep assist and automatic emergency braking, have allowed vehicles to operate semi-autonomously for years. While these features are designed to be used as secondary safety functions to the human driving task, some manufacturers are now offering vehicles with “Autopilot” and “Traffic Jam Assist”, which allow drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel and feet off the pedals while the vehicle takes full control of the driving task under certain conditions. The true driverless car that requires no human interaction under all driving conditions is still in the research and development phase, where manufacturers have logged millions of miles to assess their algorithms and address how the vehicle will respond to various traffic situations. With each mile driven, more and more information is gathered to improve and advance the technology.
Several significant hurdles still need to be overcome before we start to see driverless cars in the dealership showrooms. Although the current state of the technology is advanced enough to allow vehicles to drive themselves in ideal highway conditions, how will a vehicle operate on city streets with possibly poor road conditions and inclement weather? A driverless car must be able to identify hazards and react appropriately to prevent injury to its occupants, pedestrians and other road users and, not to mention, it must abide by the local traffic laws. There have been no reports to date of a driverless vehicle being involved in an accident where it was determined to be the vehicle’s fault. In general, it is believed that driverless cars will be safer than their human-operated counterparts, mainly because a driverless vehicle has no response lag and will be able to brake sooner than any human could. Still, the acceptance of driverless vehicle technology by state and federal legislation is limited, and how they are to operate on public roadways has not yet been defined.
So, when will we start to see driverless vehicles in production for public use? Some automobile manufacturers predict having a commercially available driverless vehicle in the next five years, while others predict widespread availability within the next two decades. The unveiling of the technology may first present itself though transportation industries, such as taxi services and city transit authorities where buses follow pre-defined routes. Freight companies hauling cargo across the country on main highways is another likely area that can benefit from driverless vehicles and one that could see the technology within the next few years. As for a prediction of when the technology will be available for the general public, one can expect to see vehicles that park themselves in “Valet” mode within the next couple of years.