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Driving the future: Are you preparing yourself for a world where you are always the passenger?

The car. Where to begin. Can you imagine trying to explain a car to a seventeenth century man? “Basically, Sir. You know your horse and carriage – imagine that without the horse, and the carriage has this new-fangled thing called an ‘engine’ in that powers it… just like a horse. But not a horse.” Preposterous, he’d probably exclaim. Now, skip forward a couple of centuries, when cars have been tooting around for a while. You’re in 1985, the big screen has just predicted – wait for it – an actual flying car by the year 2015. Now here in 2017, we all know that this prediction is still a pipedream, however we do have an innovation on the streets which has been predicted, long ago, by the big screen and is due to enter our lives in a big way – driverless automobiles.

Driverless cars have been a topic of discussion for a while now and are hotly anticipated to be a permanent feature of the average consumer’s life within the next decade. Earlier on this year in the UK Chancellor’s budget, it was stated that 270 million was to be invested to put the UK “at the forefront” of disruptive technologies. These technologies included driverless vehicle systems – and as we all know, if the government is investing in something then all ears prick up. As a result of the budget, we’ve seen an influx of driverless car trials popping up across the country, as well the development of codes of practice for the testing of autonomous vehicles and now we’re even seeing proposals for autonomous car insurance.

At the forefront of driverless technology is Tesla. Driven by Elon Musk, Tesla motors is the first in the world to produce full self-driving hardware on all of its cars. The company believes its machines “will be a probability of safety at least twice as good as the average human driver.” A bold claim to make, but a one backed up by a huge array of quantitative and qualitative data.

So how does a driverless car work? Taking Tesla as a prime example, as per the website’s guidelines, “All you will need to do is get in and tell your car where to go. If you don’t say anything, the car will look at your calendar and take you there as the assumed destination or just home if nothing is on the calendar. Your Tesla will figure out the optimal route, navigate urban streets (even without lane markings), manage complex intersections with traffic lights, stop signs and roundabouts, and handle densely packed freeways with cars moving at high speed. When you arrive at your destination, simply step out at the entrance and your car will enter park seek mode, automatically search for a spot and park itself. A tap on your phone summons it back to you.” Welcome to the future everyone.

The benefits of autonomous cars are huge. Less energy consumption due to them being electric, added convenience due to the time saved driving from A-B and greater efficiency due to real-time route optimisation. As well as the massive benefit that autonomous vehicles bring in regards to road safety, as a reported 94% of car crashes happening due to human error – essentially if there are fewer human drivers, fewer human mistakes will be made, resulting in fewer accidents. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that autonomous vehicles have come under some fire. Back in May 2016, a Tesla self-driving vehicle crashed in Florida killing its driver, as well as a Google self-driving car which crashed into a bus in the same year. However for each instant the companies involved have been able to substantially confirm that each crash was due to human error, and not the technologies fault. But on the topic of downsides, please don’t get me started on the whole autonomous vehicle hacking saga.

Autonomous vehicles are inevitable, and simply come with the natural progression of the advancement of technology – which is (almost) never a bad thing. But can you comprehend (I struggle myself) that eventually planes, trains and boats will also ALL become autonomous, allowing goods to be transported all over the world, without human intervention. The thought of getting on a plane driven by a computer, strikes fear into my very core, but I’m sure my children’s children won’t think twice of getting their boarding passes scanned (via a microchip in their hand of course) and then popping on a pilotless plane to cross the Atlantic.

In July this year, Musk was asked at a conference on where he thinks driverless technology will be in ten years’ time, and his response stuck with me, “Fully autonomous. There will not be a steering wheel. Twenty years? It will be like having a horse. People have horses, which is cool. There will be people who have non-autonomous cars, like people have horses. It would just be unusual to use that as a mode of transport.” So I bring you back to where I began. Try explaining once again to that seventeenth century man that he can get rid his horse and carriage for not only a car, but a car that drives itself.

Outrageous? Absurd? Preposterous… No (I exclaim) – that’s the future.

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