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Why a Fully Self-Driving Car Might Not Be Coming to Your Garage Any Time Soon

According to some carmaker claims, a fully self-driving car could be in production as early as 2020. Perhaps they’re right, but don’t bet on being able to buy one. Automakers may have most or all the basic hardware and software ready to rock and roll by then, but a lot of other puzzle pieces must fall into place before a totally self-driving or autonomous vehicle (AV) can safely operate on our streets and highways.

A couple of years ago, Nissan already had some of its Leaf all-electric cars loaded with gear, performing many of the functions of an AV. In a huge paved area, Nissan laid out a demonstration route, which a semiautonomous Leaf negotiated without any driver input. Among its tasks were keeping to the posted speed limit, emergency braking when a pedestrian darted from the sidewalk, making a lane change around a vehicle blocking the road and steering through a curve to stay on course. It even stopped to drop off passengers at a set spot before locating an open parking space where it parked itself. Seconds later, after being summoned with a key fob, it returned and picked up those passengers. It was an impressive demonstration of a range of self-driving technologies.

What Is Self-Driving?

Using the federal government’s standards, a vehicle is defined as fully self-driving or autonomous when it is responsible for the safe operation of all critical functions for an entire trip — that means the driver’s only responsibility is to provide a destination. An AV does absolutely everything else — steering, accelerating, braking and so on — until reaching that destination, where it will park itself.

Current Technology

Several of the basic technologies required for self-driving are already available in one form or another on today’s new cars. Features such as adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist and front-collision emergency braking are examples of self-driving technology offered on some new cars as safety functions.

Lane-departure warning and lane-keeping technology rely on cameras that recognize the lines separating lanes on the road. Radar or laser sensors provide the information for emergency-braking technologies from adaptive cruise control to collision avoidance.

Today’s GPS navigation systems can usually provide turn-by-turn directions to nearly any destination a driver inputs. This is the first step for an AV finding its way from point A to point B.

Size Matters

Although self-driving technology is surging ahead by leaps and bounds, there is still a long way to go. To perform the functions it did, the semiautonomous Leaf mentioned above relied on a cargo area crammed with electronics. There wasn’t enough room remaining to secure even a baseball behind its rear seat. No doubt Nissan has already been able to downsize many of those components, but there were still functions that the Leaf couldn’t perform on its own, which would require yet more equipment.

Facing the Elements

Anyone owning a vehicle with a backup camera has probably encountered situations where rain, mud, snow or ice have blurred or blinded the technology’s view. Cameras must be able to see to function. For example, what happens when it snows, obscuring the lane-dividing lines on which the cameras in an AV rely? These and other issues must be solved. An AV has to safely maintain its position relative to the traffic around it, and it must be able to do it in all weather conditions, day or night.

X Marks the Spot

Actually, cameras will have a lot of help. AVs will rely on a combination of sensors, cameras, GPS technology and possibly vehicle-to-vehicle communication to guide themselves safely through traffic to their destinations. But even despite the sophisticated technology, there are still issues to address.

To direct itself from one place to another, a vehicle must know not only its exact location at every moment but also the precise point where it needs to make a turn or take an exit. The GPS technology used in today’s cars is only accurate within several feet. That’s not nearly precise enough for safe AV decision-making.

Additionally, AVs require up-to-date mapping. Anyone using a GPS system with any regularity knows that isn’t currently the case. New streets and developments spring up every day, but a vehicle’s navigation mapping can be months or years out of date. Moreover, tunnels, forests and even tall buildings can confuse satellite signals.

Beyond the Software

All of these technology issues aren’t insurmountable and may well be overcome by 2020 — essentially, these are software problems. But a larger sticking point is that neither the states nor the federal government has done much to address regulating AVs. A few states have approved some limited AV testing on their roads, but that’s about it.

Insurance providers can’t really even begin to figure out how to insure AVs until regulations are in place. Even if the carmakers are ready, the bureaucracy probably won’t be.

What it means to you: No question — an AV is in your future. However, there are still a lot of wrinkles that need ironing out. Don’t be surprised if 2020 comes and goes without a self-driving car arriving in a showroom near you.

Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps is an author specializing in automotive, financial and travel news. For nearly 35 years he has covered the automotive industry for newspapers, magazines and internet websites. His resume includes The Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald, The Washington Times and numerous other daily newspapers through syndication. He edited Auto World magazine, and helped create and edit NOPI Street... Read More

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