Why Autonomous Vehicles Will Thrive in 2021

May 06, 2021


Why Autonomous Vehicles Will Thrive in 2021
Image Courtesy of Unsplash

Driverless cars seemed like a sci-fi notion for so long. But now, they’re here.

There are several vehicles already on the market that can park themselves and execute various actions without the aid of a driver.

The first fully autonomous vehicles are in production, and ready for sale to the public. However, there are plenty of questions about whether or not they’ll be allowed on the road, or if people will trust them.

Acclimatizing To The Idea

The issue of public trust is a massive hurdle for autonomous vehicles. Can we really trust a vehicle to not malfunction when our lives are on the line—driving at speed down the freeway, maneuvering around pedestrians in a busy high street, or avoiding rockfalls and other potential accident hazards?

Yet despite these trust issues, the public is already getting used to the idea of autonomous vehicles. Various elements have slowly been introduced to our cars and have become standard features.

Self-parking seemed completely radical a few years ago, and now, people all over the world are letting their cars do the hard work in tight spots. Cruise control has advanced to become adaptive as vehicles use sensors around them to gauge the speed and proximity of other vehicles on the road. The same goes for automated braking.

While it may still take a while for most of the public to trust a car driving itself completely, we are slowly becoming more comfortable with the concept.

Google Has Shown It’s Possible

Waymo is the self-driving vehicle division of Google and their Waymo One has shuttled around paid passengers for over a year already. The search engine and technology giant has built several vehicles that combined clocked 100 000 trips in 2020 and over 70 000 miles on US roads with no human driver behind the wheel.

The pilot program for the Waymo One has been running in Phoenix, Arizona, and was operating like a regular taxi service where people had to phone ahead and book a ride. There were also no “safety drivers'' involved, making it the ideal solution for a COVID-19 world. In the first quarter of 2021, Google took the project one step further and created the first-ever ride share service for an autonomous robotaxi. They have used the same concept as Uber and Lyft. Users just need to download the Waymo app and book a ride.

Google reportedly chose Phoenix as the starting point for this project due to the ideal conditions. The area is extremely flat, with no mountainous terrain between suburbs. The roads are also well maintained by the council. Additionally, the weather doesn’t go to extremes, meaning there is no ice to contend with or major fluctuations in temperature.

Waymo has now identified about 100 other regions across the US where it can extend the program with ease. Once the next phase of testing and trials is complete, it’s likely that the company will roll out its robotaxis and ride share app to the cities around the country.

Google isn’t the only tech giant launching this type of program. Zoox, a company owned by Amazon, revealed their autonomous taxi at the end of 2020. It’s an electric vehicle that literally has nowhere for a “safety driver” to sit or anyway for a human to take control. There is no driver’s seat and no steering wheel or brakes.

COVID-19 Hit The Fast-Forward Button On Technology

One of the major unexpected side-effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the worldwide lockdowns was the impact it had on technological advancements. Perhaps all the downtime forced our brighter minds to think of new ideas or find the time to flesh out some concepts that had been on the back burner. Trends that we thought would only come to fruition in another five to ten years have come forward to the here and now.

One of the big obstacles that has always stood in the way of advancement was regulations and laws. It’s a good thing that there are checks and balances so that technology and advancements in science are properly vetted to ensure they’re safe. However, the process for vetting often takes a prohibitively long time. With the rapid changes that occur in technology, laws and regulations are often too old or outdated to account for the new concepts emerging.

If the research, trials, approval, and roll out of the various COVID-19 vaccines have taught us anything, it’s that it’s possible for vetting and regulations to move quickly and safely. Many industries around the world are applying this logic to several different areas. Autonomous vehicles being one of them. In fact, the US is allowing Google and Amazon to roll out their driverless taxi programs quickly. The UK is following suit, saying that the law will allow for autonomous vehicles in 2021.

The details of the law still need ironing out, and it will be interesting to see how it’s applied. There are many facets to consider, from the practical driving side to the insurance and safety elements. The laws may even stipulate that mileage tracking is essential, or that dashcams must always record trips. There are a myriad of factors to consider, and lawmakers will have to move fast to update existing regulations to accommodate new technology.

Why Do We Want Autonomous Vehicles?

There are a number of reasons autonomous vehicles make sense. For one, they take out the risk of human error. Bad drivers or careless drivers cause the vast majority of accidents. Other benefits of driverless cars include:

  • No More Stranger Danger—Getting into a taxi or a ride share is risky, as you’re putting your trust in a complete stranger. Many women worry about taking taxis on their own, especially at night. Driverless taxis remove that risk.
  • Traffic Will Improve—The theory is that hesitancy at traffic lights and drivers braking unexpectedly is what causes a large portion of backups on the roads. Self-driving cars won’t have that problem, and traffic is more likely to flow better, even in heavily congested cities.
  • More Room And Comfort Inside—Without the need for a steering wheel, handbrake and other driving necessities, there will be more space inside the vehicle. There will also be more options for the layout inside the car. This allows for additional room to work while commuting, a greater rest area when traveling long distances, and easier maneuverability for parents with small children, or differently abled persons.

The development and release of autonomous vehicles has accelerated rapidly, and 2021 looks set to be the year the car industry takes a bold step forward. Driverless cars may have seemed like a far-off reality, but with Amazon and Google in the driver’s seat, they’ve fast become the future. That future is now.