Written By: John Linden

In some science fiction shows and novels, people have self-driving cars. They tell the car where they want to go, then set back and relax as the car drives there. It communicates with the other cars on the road, safely moving around them until it reaches the destination. It sounds incredible. Who wouldn’t want to spend their time in the car doing something productive or just relaxing instead of actually driving?

But are we really ready for the self-driving car? Some companies think so. Nissan, for example, has stated that they plan on marketing a self-driving car to the general public by the year 2020. That might sound crazy, but they’re already working on the plans for the vehicle, and they expect to start testing their prototype in 2014. They plan on using a combination of cameras, radar, and laser guidance to help the car detect other vehicles and objects, red lights, and more. The sensors are built into the car’s body on all sides, letting it “see” in a 360 degree circle. In fact, they don’t believe the technology is going to be the deciding factor; laws will. Before self-driving cars become the norm, new legislation, including rules on who would be at fault in an accident, would have to be worked out. It's only a matter of time before outdoor car covers will need a brand new design just for these models!

Google is also working on a self-driving car. In fact, they’re a step or two ahead of Nissan because they already have a test car on the road. This car uses a laser-based navigation system that helps it detect and avoid objects on the road. So far, however, this system is incredibly expensive. Naturally, it will probably come down in cost over the next decade. Google has equipped two test cars with this system, driving them over 500,000 kilometers. So far, they have performed very well. The one accident occurred when the vehicle was being driven by a human. These cars have to “learn” the roads first—a human drive drives the same route a few times before the computer has all of the information necessary to take over. However, this could be the perfect system for morning and evening commutes.

While it seems safe to say that the technology is here and that we’ll be seeing a self-driving car sooner rather than later, are we really ready for this technology? Most people would say yes. A self-driving car would provide many benefits to society. For example, the blind or those who aren’t able to drive wouldn’t need to rely on public transportation or the kindness of others. If all cars were controlled by computers, there would be fewer accidents, and driving would be much safer overall. Computer-driven cars may also be able to calculate the most efficient route to the destination, which would result in using less fuel.

Of course, there are a number of hurdles to still cross. Legal issues have to be worked out, and there would be a transition period where we would see both self-driving and human-driving cars on the road. The economy would have to change—there would be less of a need for wrecker services or body shops. However, once these issues are resolved, the self-driving car could make the world a safer place and give us a little bit of extra time in our too-busy lives.