How long before driverless cars are a reality?

There are many questions to be answered before they arrive onto our roads

The prospect of driverless cars is once again dominating much of the focus here at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. While this is a tech show, cars are everywhere. 

The big manufacturers are here showing off just what the dashboard on an average car can do. Then, of course, there’s the electric car side of things. We have big players in that field here, but there's also a number of smaller startups looking to develop battery-powered and plug-in hybrid cars.

As the innovation with traditional cars continues, more and more consumers are becoming fascinated by the concept of an autonomous vehicle. One point the manufacturers are looking to showcase here at CES is that it's no longer just a concept.

This technology is very real. There are people here on the Las Vegas strip being driven around in semi-autonomous cabs right now. These are taxis, which have a driver, but you the customer and a computer interface are in control. You sit in the back, insert your destination and hit ‘start journey’.

In terms of fully driverless cars for consumers, however, Stefan Bankowski of Ford Motor Company says it come be some time yet before it’s a day-to-day reality.

"Some automakers out there are trying to set goals or deadlines for over the next five-plus years, it's hard to say exactly. Over the next decade, we're definitely going to move into less of a driver-centric experience and more about the passenger. It'll be interesting to see how they interact with the system, digital assistants play a big role in that."

Ethics 

The impression I’m getting here is that the tech is good to go right now to a certain extent, but there are many, many questions about the ethics of the driverless cars. Issues such as the laws of the different regions they’ll operate in and dealing with what happens if and when something goes wrong all need to be worked out. 

Earlier this week, I saw a new Ford car that is Amazon Echo enabled. I was able to ask the car what time it was, what the weather was and what meetings I had yesterday, and it answered me, just like Knight Rider. These cars are smart and there’s no denying that the goal is for a fully autonomous vehicle, but Karl Brauer of Cox Automotive says there’s another big issue that needs to be addressed before these cars can go mainstream. 

"Security is a huge issue and the reason is that it never stops. We can get to a point where the sensors won't get covered by rain or mud. Security continues to be a problem, as hackers continue to develop their abilities to break in a vehicle. Automakers need to keep upping their game, to ensure cars don't get hacked."

Experience

It’s hard to predict exactly how the day-to-day user experience will work in an autonomous vehicle. The idea right now is that the passenger will sit in a car and use voice control to say where they want to go.

This, however, leads to another issue. That is ensuring that the cars know where it is you want to go and the best route to get there. You could say, for example, take me to Blackrock, meaning Blackrock in Dublin, but it goes off to Cork.

There’s a company called What3Words, which is looking to help address that issue. It’s a navigation company that has assigned three random words to every 3m x 3m plot of land in the world. I met with the company’s co-founder Chris Sheldrick, and he told me why he believes his business has the solution for navigating driverless cars, more so than postcodes.

"We have just done a deal with Mercedes, so if you get into a new Mercedes car, you can simply just speak your three-word destination and the car will take you there. What I struggle with is that many of the postcodes we have are all alpha-numeric and can be quite difficult to remember. The beauty of our system is the simplicity."

Our coverage of CES is with thanks to Vodafone.