The automobile industry is in the early stages of transforming into a brand new age. While there are many technological and regulatory issues to resolve, someday you will be able to drive with two hands on the object of your choosing and no hands on the wheel. The benefits autonomous vehicles can provide don’t end there, however.

1] The federal government has identified six phases of driver assistance technology (DAT) development. Level 0 was the complete absence of DAT. We are currently at level 2, which is characterized by partially automated DAT. Hands-free features like automatic steering with speed control work for short periods of time in certain conditions. Level 3 cars will include more widespread DAT but will still require driver involvement. Level 4 vehicles will be fully autonomous, but drivers will still be able to operate their vehicles themselves. Level 5 vehicles will take the driver completely out of the picture. By as soon as 2025, not only will autonomous vehicles not require a driver but they also won’t have steering wheels or gas and brake pedals.

2] DAT is already making driving safer. Semi-autonomous vehicles are reducing accidents through the use of what’s known as active safety features.

  • Collision warning systems use radar, lasers and cameras to warn drivers of an impending collision and can apply the brakes automatically.
  • When your vehicle drifts out of its lane, lane-departure warning with lane-keeping assist can automatically steer you back between the lines.
  • Cross-traffic sensors can detect when a vehicle is about to cross behind you and trigger automatic braking.
  • Adaptive cruise control automatically slows you down when you’re getting too close to the vehicle ahead of you.

3] Fully autonomous vehicles will make driving even safer yet. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, fully 94 percent of vehicular accidents occur as the result of driver error. Theoretically, if you could take the man-made element out of the driving equation, you would see a corresponding 80 percent decline in the number of crashes on U.S. roads. If a crash should occur, a car utilizing the Internet of Things (IoT) will automatically notify police, fire and emergency medical services, which will also save lives.

4] Eventually, all self-driving cars will employ some combination of sensors, cameras, radar, high-performance GPS, Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR), artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning to operate autonomously. Scalable, cloud-based data management systems will allow a vehicle to collect, manage and analyze sensor data. LIDAR enables a self-driving car to “see” the world with incredible accuracy. It gives the vehicle a 360-degree view of the surrounding environment that’s accurate within two centimeters of the objects in its view.

5] Protecting fully autonomous vehicles from hackers will require continuing diligence. By definition, the number of control units, computing power, lines of code, and wireless connections needed for autonomous cars to safely navigate in multiple environments will expand several times over. This, of course, makes them more vulnerable to hackers who could potentially take control of a vehicle and tell it to refuse to start, or even to crash. It could also lead to the theft of personal information the driver accesses while riding in an autonomous vehicle, including banking, credit card and other sensitive financial information. Continued due diligence will be required to remain a step ahead of those who wish to do harm.

6] The transformation will not be sudden. A big challenge for automakers is that the technology required to produce autonomous vehicles is currently out-of-reach for most. A complete LIDAR system, for instance, currently sells for $80,000. However, costs are expected to come down as the technology evolves and economies-of-scale are achieved. On the demand side, a survey conducted by AAA found that more than three out of four Americans are leery of the prospect of riding in a fully automated vehicle. However, the survey also showed that 59 percent of drivers want at least some autonomous features in their next vehicle. As the technology evolves, consumer trust should evolve as well.

By the year 2040, autonomous vehicles are expected to comprise around 25 percent of the global vehicle fleet. But self-driving vehicles won’t constitute the majority of vehicles on the road for many decades to come. Even then, fully automated vehicles will continue to co-mingle with cars controlled by drivers.

Abby Drexler is a contributing writer and media specialist for Service First Automotive. She regularly produces content for a variety of car safety and maintenance blogs.

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