In some ways, the 21st century was a bit of a bum deal for your parents, or, if you are a parent, for anyone that grew up in the glory days of the 80s when Blade Runner taught us that the future was going to be all about flying cars, neon, and colonies on other worlds. It got the part right about Los Angeles being a horrible place to live, but that’s another matter entirely. Everything else, however, ended up just being a lot of wishful thinking. Cars don’t fly. We still haven’t sent anyone new to the Moon or Mars, but, we can call up hilarious cat videos anytime we feel like it and share it with our friends in a desperate bid to get more “Likes.” Progress! We’ll take it wherever we can get it!
But there are some things that are ripped straight from science fiction that are actually here right now, or are on the way. Cat videos aside, the ability to look up the collective knowledge of humanity from a device the size of your hand is pretty freaking amazing. Cat videos and selfie-sing alongs are just a bonus. Even virtual reality is available now, rather than just some crazy movie concept, and while we don’t yet have them in auto dealerships, cars that drive themselves are coming. They’re actually being tested right now.
So what’s that going to mean to you?
The Top 5 Facts About Self Driving Cars
The Last Generation Of Drivers
This may be a bizarre concept to think about for you people reading this article, but anyone that is considering getting their license now, or within the next 5-10 years may be the last generation that knows a world where a car can’t just pick you up by itself, and take you where you want to go without you ever having to touch the steering wheel or brake and acceleration pedals. Your children may not ever need to think about getting a driving license, because the car will do all that for them.
Right now Google is doing a lot of testing on self-driving cars in their home state of California, so people all around the San Francisco region have been watching for the last few years as Google’s cars continue to learn to drive themselves, but it’s not just California. Florida is also really serious about self-driving vehicles, although a lot of their testing is taking place in a surprising-but-not-really aspect of transport that most of us don’t think about; big, huge, freakin’ Mac truck convoys.
Think about it. Those huge trucks are designed to do one thing; haul gigantic amounts of freight from point A to point B. However, there are some built-in limitations on how quickly these trucks get to their destination, namely fuel and, more frequently, the need for the driver to eat, sleep and use the toilet or shower. If you eliminate the driver from the equation, you get a truck that can just keep going until it needs more fuel, or arrives at its destination. In fact, the testing done in Florida is with big truck “fleets,” using the highway equivalent of the drafting technique you see in professional racing. If the lead truck takes the brunt of the air resistance, then a fleet of computer controlled trucks driving closely behind it—almost like a train with no links—benefits from a big boost in efficiency.
But beyond trucks, Florida’s also got another pressing concern. There are lot of elderly people that love to take advantage of the mild, warm weather in the sunshine state, but some of them, due to issues of age, have mobility issues and can no longer hold a license to drive. A car that can drive them to and fro would suddenly take that retiree with spare time and a lot disposable income and bring them back into the market with all that cash. So, there are real humanitarian reasons—driven by naked, rampant capitalism—to get more people back on the road.
Levels Of Autonomy
Because of this, the government is already drawing up plans for gradual integration of self-driving cars into our roadways, and one of the things they’re doing is classifying the “grades” of self-driveyness. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, known by the not very catchy NHTSA, has already come up with five levels to describe just how autonomous your car is. This is how they’re currently breaking it down.
This is… not autonomous at all. This is just a human, in complete control of a car, doing every single action. This is also you when you are taking your driving test, and a watchful evaluator is making sure you’re aware of rules of traffic and can actually stay in your lane or maintain the correct distance from the car in front of you.
This is some slight autonomy. Some things like braking may be assisted by the car, but otherwise, a human is still completely in charge of the show.
Cars get a bit more control here, with things like cruise control, and even lane centering being part of the equation. Basically, if you can actually take your hands off the wheel, and your feet off the pedal of the car at any point during the drive, it’s level 2.
At this point, a car is doing some actual driving itself, and a human’s presence is still required, but NOT essential for the driving of the car. The human can still intervene if desired, but in theory, the car can actually do a lot by itself.
The car is driving itself, and no human is actually required to sit behind the wheel and take control at any time. This car is smart enough to actually track the environment around it. Tesla is saying they’ll have a car classified as level 4 out by 2018.
This is Google’s ultimate goal. A car that doesn’t even have a steering wheel or brake or acceleration pedals present. A human will never, ever have to take control, and the car is built so it’s not even possible.
Of course, for now, all this doesn’t affect you if you want to drive today, next week, or even next year. You’ll still need a license, and you’ll still need to pass driving school, so you’d better start looking. But your kids? Who knows?
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