Some love the idea, some loathe it, but autonomous cars are coming.

Autonomous cars have become a hot topic of discussion in recent years. Established car manufacturers are flirting with the idea of self-driving cars, businesses with no car-making history are also getting in on the act, as are entirely new companies established with the sole goal of producing vehicles that require no driver input.

It may seem like a new and novel technology but the idea of autonomous cars is far from new. First demonstrations of the technology came in the 1980s, and the idea was even explored decades earlier with radio controlled cars in the United States.

In 1995, a prototype from Carnegie Mellon University's Navlab program, one of the earliest proponents of autonomous vehicle technology, completed 2,797 autonomous miles during a 2,849 mile journey between Pittsburgh, PA and San Diego, CA.

Google self-driving car

Autonomous cars were under development for much of the 20th century, but it was the late 2000s and 2010s when the the technology really broke into the public eye. American technology giant Google began developing a self-driving car in 2010  ̶  their first foray into the motor industry. The German "big three," Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi, as well as the wider Volkswagen Group and the likes of Nissan, Volvo, Ford, General Motors, FCA, and PSA. soon followed suit in pushing ahead with their developments.

Along with Google, Apple and Uber also began developing autonomous car technology, despite never building cars of their own before. Uber's plans involve ditching their controversial driven taxi business model for a huge fleet of autonomous taxis.

What actually is an autonomous car? The Society of Automotive Engineers defines six different levels of autonomy ranging from 0-5.

0 No Automation
1 Drive Assistance (The car assists with things such as accelerating and braking)
2 Partial Automation (The automation of the car is driving-mode-specific)
3 Conditional Automation (Again, mode-specific, but this time instead of the car being primarily driver controlled, the driver will only intervene when absolutely necessary)
4 High Automation (The car is automated, but there can still be human intervention)
5 Full Automation

 

Things like radar-guided cruise control and lane assist are quickly becoming commonplace in new cars, and full automation is a distinct possibility in some models although legislation in most regions prevents it at the moment.

However, California, Nevada, Michigan, and Florida has already passed laws permitting autonomous cars that has allowed them to begin testing in those states, as has Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain, while a number of cities across Europe are planning on making changes to accommodate self-driving vehicles.

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In the UK, in April plans were unveiled to begin testing driverless cars on motorways from 2019. The plan was backed by the government, who has pledged £100 million (about $132M) as it is "determined that Britain leads the way globally in embracing the safe development of driverless technology". The Highway Code will also be altered to factor in driverless cars.

The UK Government expects autonomous cars to be on the road "any time from the mid-2020s onwards," meaning what was once a radical, and relatively far-fetched idea, is now less than a decade away from becoming the norm.

Tesla Autopilot

On the face of it, the idea of driverless cars is a convenient solution for the vast majority of motorists. Most drivers drive out of necessity rather than desire. Still, despite the technology's best intentions, it isn't without its flaws, many of which have been thrust into the spotlight.

One such feature that had its fair share of bad press is Tesla's Autopilot feature. Tesla, pioneers in forward-thinking automotive developments, first offered in 2014 as a driver-assist option with a 90-mph speed limiter, Traffic-Aware Cruise Control, and auto steer, lane change, and parking parking features. Full driving capability was added with a 2016 update, although its accessibility remains limited for the time being.

Tesla intends Autopilot to eventually be a fully autonomous feature that will be available on all of their products from 2019. The Californian firm acknowledges that there are technical and regulatory hurdles to overcome before its full abilities are offered to the public.

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Controversy surrounding Autopilot centres around a crash in 2016 that killed the occupant of a Tesla Model S in Florida. Initial investigations deemed that the car had failed to apply the brakes before colliding with an 18-wheeler. The driver was reportedly watching a DVD at the time of the crash, raising questions over whether driverless cars were fully ready to be on the road, despite Tesla's Autopilot feature not being a fully autonomous feature at the time.

Since then, nearly 50,000 Tesla owners have filed a class action lawsuit against the company at Autopilot's features and functionality.

Software updates to Tesla's second-generation Autopilot were set to introduce a number of new features gradually over a period of time, but the lawsuit alleges that features such as collision warning and emergency braking either never arrived or didn't work as intended when they did.

Just like when they introduced their first mass-produced electric car in 2008, Tesla seem to be leading another automotive revolution with Autopilot; and while the company is pushing ahead with plans to have the full technology in the hands of consumers just two short years from now, the reality is that having it as a bullet-proof and dependable feature is something that remains some way off.