As we rush headlong into an era where driverless (self-driving) cars become a reality, there's another rush on to become a leader in the drive to take drivers out of the equation.
The UK government is one such entity that wants to be in the driver's seat of the move toward driverless vehicles. Business Secretary Vince Cable just announced driverless cars will be allowed on public roads in January 2015.
"Today's announcement will see driverless cars take to our streets in less than six months, putting us at the forefront of this transformational technology and opening up new opportunities for our economy and society," Cable said.
Britain is not the first nation to allow driverless access to public roads. In the U.S., California, Nevada and Florida now let tests of self-driving cars to take place on public thoroughfares. Nissan was granted highway access rights for its driverless projects in 2013. The Swedish city of Gothenburg gave the go-ahead to Volvo, although that testing will not begin until 2017.
Exactly what makes a car driverless? We are already making baby steps toward this goal through technology that is already available in today's vehicles; collision warning radar coupled with automatic braking; lane departure warning systems; self-parking technology; adaptive cruise control; and GPS navigation. All of these features are becoming commonplace and trickling down to more inexpensive vehicles at the same time.
The phasing-in of these features allows for teething problems to be worked out, while helping to raise drivers' trust level in these automated functions.
Overcoming the natural resistance of drivers to ceding control of a moving vehicle to automation will be a key battle in the switch to driverless cars. It will be especially difficult to move from self-driving cars that include manual steering, acceleration and braking controls to vehicles with no driver control equipment on board, like the current Google driverless car that only allows the driver to stop or start the engine.
Google is building 100 of these full-Monty driverless cars while simultaneously testing traditional vehicles with the usual driver controls.
Another caveat that must be overcome is the potential for driverless cars to be accomplices in criminal acts or to be used as guided bombs by terrorists, fears that have been raised by the law enforcement community, including the FBI.
Self-driving vehicles can also benefit law enforcement organizations and can be problem-solvers for EMT personnel and other first responders. For example, self-driving vehicles can keep tabs on the location of criminals on the move, negotiate traffic conflicts better than people-guided cars and improve safety in high-speed chases.