When are these things coming?
Nissan last year announced an “ambitious goal” of having an affordable autonomous car ready by 2020. Others who see that as overly ambitious think you’re more likely to see them in serious production a few years after that — say, 2025 or 2030.
How much will they cost?
Right now, the technology alone adds $70,000 to $100,000 to the cost of a vehicle. Few people could pay that much more for a magic flying carpet, let alone a car. Automakers are wrestling to make it affordable, and there are projections that by the time autocars go into mass production, the additional cost might fall to between $3,000 and $5,000.
How do they work?
Lots of sensory equipment feed into the vehicle’s computers. Radar, lasers and cameras collect data on the distance to objects and their speed if they’re moving. GPS helps, and an inertial navigation system in the computer uses dead reckoning to continuously calculate position, orientation, direction and speed of the vehicle and surrounding objects.Without getting too deep into the weeds: Cloud-based data could be used to continually update the onboard computer, including data collected from other cars.
Can they deal with work zones, or cyclists and a kid in the street?
They’re pretty good at it now, and their developers are working to make them better. Sensors on the vehicle keep track of everything in its path, and the vehicle stops for obstacles or to navigate around them.
Are autonomous cars and connected cars the same thing?
No. An autonomous car uses onboard technology to find its way around and keep from running into things. Connected cars, a concept also in active development, provide direct short-range communication between vehicles (and highway beacons) to help them coexist better. The connected-car technology could be an asset to autonomous cars, but it’s not the steppingstone some experts once thought necessary. Connected cars still will need an active driver.
Will a car with no hands on the wheel be safer?
Yes, experts say. Driver error causes the overwhelming majority of crashes — 93 percent of them, according to one federal report — and there are more than 5 million crashes each year. Just getting intoxicated drivers from behind the wheel could reduce fatalities by 39 percent.
Does that mean there will be zero crashes?
Nobody dares make that claim, and for good reason: Too many things can go wrong on the roadway. But there could be a dramatic reduction.
Who are the winners and losers if these things come to rule the road?
The quick take is greater mobility for the blind, the elderly, people with disabilities and those too young to drive. Professions that figure to suffer: cab drivers, truck drivers and bus drivers. If crash rates plummet, body shops, insurance companies, chiropractors and emergency rooms will see less business.
Will there be less traffic congestion?
Probably yes, but maybe no. Cars moving along briskly — no rubbernecking, distracted drivers or left-lane slowpokes — clears up a lot of the headache right off the bat. There will be less stop-and-go and smoother passage through intersections, and cars will be able to travel much closer together. But two things may put more cars on the road: Those who can’t drive now (see above) will be on the road, and since being in a vehicle that doesn’t need to be driven will be more enjoyable and productive, people may spend more time on the road (see below).
Will it affect where people decide to live?
It might. On one hand, people may be willing to travel farther to and from work if their vehicle becomes a mini-office in which they can be productive. That invites suburban sprawl. On the other hand, if parking no longer is an issue, people may be more eager to live in the heart of the action downtown.
What does this mean for parking?
Imagine getting dropped off at the door whereever you go. That could happen. The estimated 31 percent of land devoted to parking in urban cores could be used for something else if cars toddle off on their own to park in more distant satellite lots or garages that aren’t in prime-time space.
Won’t this take a massive rewrite of traffic laws?
You bet it will. Driving is the most complicated and regulated thing most people do. The industry has begged regulators not to pass a lot of new laws until the technology is all worked out, for fear that premature reaction could yield restraints or restrictions that prove unnecessary when all is said and done. But state legislatures — and states write traffic laws — will need time to wrestle with the new order. And imagine the retooling required for the insurance industry to get comfortable with a computer potentially being to blame for a collision.Drivers make moral decisions — sometimes poorly — in fractions of a second: Better to run off the road and hit a tree or run into a woman crossing the street with a baby stroller? Computers are more pragmatic than people, but would they make the wrong moral decision in a case like that?
How soon will these cars be on the assembly line?
There are plenty of things that need to be worked out first — some technical, some not. GPS and inertial navigation are a potent combination, but GPS can be off by several feet. That’s okay if it’s dispensing driving directions but not so great if it’s being used to gauge the precise distance to the next left turn. Backup systems have to be integrated so that if one system fails there’s a seamless transition to prevent a collision. Humans are the ultimate fail-safe system, and cognitive scientists are studying how to get them on the ball fast in an emergency. There are fears that drivers may be asleep at the wheel or too engrossed by distractions to refocus on the road if the car needs human assistance.
Why do they need drivers, anyway?
Truth be told, they don’t. Right now you could put your dog in Carnegie Mellon University’s prototype car on Interstate 95 and have the car drive Fido to Maine (provided you teach Fido to pump gas). The car — and its counterparts at Google and abroad — already are pretty capable of handling city traffic. By the time they come into mass production they will be better at negotiating urban streets. But it figures to be a while — maybe a generation — before people (and the states that write traffic laws) are comfortable letting these cars loose without someone near the controls.
Would you ride in a no-hands car?
Half of the people surveyed this year by the Pew Research Center said they wouldn’t. College graduates (59 percent) were more likely to say they would. People with a high school diploma or less (62 percent) were inclined to pass up the chance. A slight majority of city and suburban residents said they would, but only 36 percent of people in rural areas thought they’d try it.