What do you need to know about self-driving cars?

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What do you need to know about self-driving cars?

Self-driving cars are dominating the headlines at the moment. Once a futuristic dream, the idea is becoming a rapid reality thanks to companies like Google and Tesla. With 10 million semi-automated cars forecasted to be on the road by 2020, carmakers around the world are being asked tough questions about the morality of the eventual fully autonomous car.

In a life or death situation, how will the car react? How will it make human decisions with a mechanical brain? We’ve prepared a basic guide to get you up to speed with self-driving cars. 


The history of autonomous vehicles dates back to the first iteration, the auto-tiller for sailboats. After this, the airplane acquired autopilot technology in the 1930s. During a dark chapter of human history, V1 and V2 German rockets pioneered self-guided technology. In the 1970s, autonomous space probes were also launched. 

In 1977, Japan’s Tsukuba tested an autonomous car that used cameras to detect street markers. By 1994, technology allowed Professor Ernst Dickmanns to test an experimental Mercedes 500 SEL, which self-navigated 1,000 km of highway.

DARPA pushed it further in 2004, testing new vehicles with laser rangefinders and radar. Google took an interest in the project and began researching. Their test vehicles used the body of a Toyota Prius and logged 140,000 miles of driving in 2010. A fully working smart shuttle called the Navia was launched by a French robotics company but it wasn’t until 2015 that Google would reveal their prototype of a truly self-driving car.

How do they work?

Looking at Google’s first prototype, we can discern how future self-driving vehicles will work. The car has no steering wheel, accelerator or brake pedal.

It can be summoned via a smartphone. The only controls are a start button and an emergency stop button.

The car is electric, powered by a motor that lasts for a 100-mile range. It uses a GPS to discern a location and drives via radar, lasers and cameras. It detects objects, people, cars, road markings and other important information as it drives along and can even navigate road works.

In an ideal world, where everyone drives autonomous vehicles, the computers should ensure a smooth driving experience for all with no accidents or errors. Unfortunately, that requires an enormous overhaul of road infrastructure that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Leading models

At the moment, the leading autonomous vehicle researcher is Google. However, the brand is unlikely to manufacture these alone. Expect brands like Toyota, Fiat and Ford to licence Google’s technology.

For those who want the closest thing to autonomy, Tesla, a US company, recently installed its autopilot software in all of their Model S cars built after 2014. This system is as close to autonomous as any retail car owner can hope for at the moment, with cruise control, lane control, hands-free lane changes and 360-degree collision detection.

When can I get one?

Self-driving cars are at least five years away because of the road infrastructure redesign that will be needed to make them safe.