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Self-Driving Cars: Why the U.S. May Not Be First

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author photo by Russ Heaps May 2016

In the future, totally self-driving cars may dominate the roads. But will the shift take place in the U.S. before other countries? It's not clear that the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Let's face it: No one at this point really knows how the switch to self-driving cars, or autonomous vehicles (AVs), will take place. Several carmakers are racing to have AVs of some sort in production within 5 years, but even if they hit that target, will these cars be truly and completely autonomous?

Here's an even bigger question: Will we have all the other factors required for the safe operation of AVs in place by then? These items include satellite mapping, traffic control and regulations, and the list goes on. When you consider the massive logistics efforts required, a 5-year time line to self-driving cars starts to seem unlikely.

Paving the way for AVs to operate safely on public highways will require a colossal effort, and it may prove less of a challenge somewhere other than the United States. That doesn't necessarily eliminate the U.S. as the first country to enjoy widespread AV use, but don't be surprised if a smaller country beats us to the punch.

Here are two key reasons why we shouldn't be surprised if self-driving cars don't rule U.S. highways first.

The Numbers

By most estimates, there are more than 250 million cars and trucks on U.S. roads. According to World Bank data, the only country to edge out the U.S. in cars per capita is the microstate of San Marino. Meanwhile, industry watchers expect new-car sales in 2016 to total around 17 million or higher. Using that number as a given each year going forward, it would take a minimum of 15 years to completely replace today's human-controlled cars with AVs in this country.

It's not a stretch to imagine that some other developed country with far lower vehicle-ownership numbers could be ready for AVs in a much shorter period of time.

The Map

For a completely autonomous vehicle -- a car requiring nothing more from a human than inputting a destination -- to get from point A to point B, it has to have a comprehensive map of every road, street and alley downloaded into its onboard computer. An AV must be able to pinpoint its exact location to the inch in order to successfully and safely navigate on its own from one place to another.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there were nearly 4.1 million miles of paved and unpaved road in the country as of 2013, with more being added each year. Every mile of these roads must be digitally recorded into a high-definition (HD) map, with much more detail and accuracy needed compared to today's GPS maps.

Look at the touchscreen of any GPS navigation system, and you'll see an image of surrounding roads with some sort of icon showing your car's relationship to those roads. But with current mapping, that positioning is approximate, not precise. The system may be able to track your progress along a street or highway, but it can't determine exactly which lane you're traveling in. In order to operate safely, AVs will have to know exactly where they are at all times -- not just what road, but which lane they're in and what stretch of that road they're on, with accuracy down to fractions of an inch.

Upgrading all the current maps to HD is a huge undertaking that will require imaging vehicles to travel every street and highway and record what they see. It isn't too hard to picture this task being completed in a smaller country such as Belgium, which has fewer than 100,000 miles of paved roads, before it's completed in the U.S.

What it means to you: In the U.S., we're so focused on reports of AV test mules and Google mapping cars winding down our streets that we tend to forget that this effort is going on in other countries, as well. One of these other nations might just prove to be AV-ready before we do.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Self-Driving Cars: Why the U.S. May Not Be First - Autotrader