Every day is one day closer to seeing autonomous or "self-driving vehicles" on the road, but they may not be what you think. Several different technologies are currently in development.
"The federal government uses what are called the Society of Automotive Engineer (SAE) standards to evaluate what sort of autonomous vehicle you're talking about," said Ian Adams, associate vice president of state affairs at the R Street Institute. "If it's a level three vehicle, you still have a human driver that will have to do some tasks; whereas if it's a level five vehicle, technically you wouldn't need a steering wheel or pedals to operate the vehicle, you would just need to put in a destination."
Adams thinks it fair to say that within five years we are going to see level three autonomous technology in action.
"Level five vehicles are probably a decade or more out from meaningful deployment," he added. "In fact, some studies have said that level five vehicles will not be around before 2035."
Whatever the case may be, road blocks exist. Researchers at the University of Washington recently found that the computer inside autonomous vehicles may have trouble reading traffic signs with graffiti painted on them.
"Just like any emerging technology, challenges will be presented along the way. Few tasks are more technically demanding than perceiving the world in real time while moving a heavy piece of metal down the road at high speeds," said Adams. “Are these vehicles ready for prime time? I think they're certainly ready for testing and deployment at this point, so long as the media and the public continue to pay close attention and are stakeholders at the table in determining what the future of these sorts of technologies will look like.”
Ultimately, if they're unsafe or constantly getting into collisions, Adams said people are unlikely to adopt them.
"That leads me to believe that the manufacturers of these vehicles, be they tech companies or large auto companies like Ford or General Motors,” he continued, “are taking every precaution imaginable as they go through and develop these vehicles to ensure that the public is ready for them. At the end of the day, that's going to be the future of their industry. They have everything riding on this."
Adams believes autonomous vehicles could be "a windfall for the environment."
"They will be able to stay very close behind the vehicle in front,” he explained, “which will cut down on the amount of fuel that has to be used, and autonomous vehicles are ripe for use as electrical vehicles."