The advent of the self driving car is, in itself, an open indication that the future is now upon us. These days, driverless cars being tested as prototypes by the likes of Google and Apple (as rumored) are commonly cited as among today’s technological marvels. However, self-driving technology has already been introduced as options for high-end cars currently in production – a sign that it’s bound to enter into mainstream usage. Currently, large automakers such as Tesla, Audi, BMW, and Volvo are in the course of developing solutions that would make self-driving technology more feasible, while smaller companies dedicated to improving the technology are also producing their own contributions.

The current players in self-driving technology

The process of developing self driving car technology is currently alive and kicking among some of the most prominent names in the automotive world, as well as among those heavily involved in other technological ventures. Google, for instance, is currently marking its contributions through its self driving car prototypes, which are noted for its highly-compact bodies marked by the absence of a traditional driver’s seat. Some efforts focus on replacing traditional modes of mass transportation, including driverless trains, trackless trams, or even those akin to the ongoing Hyperloop project, conceived by Tesla founder Elon Musk. Autonomous freight carriers, particularly those in the form of robotic trucks, are also currently under development.

Google has been testing its self driving car technology in four United States (US) states since 2012: California, Florida, Michigan, and Nevada. Most of Google’s prototypes, apart from custom-built bubble car, consist of modified production vehicles provided by Toyota and Lexus. Transportation network company Uber, famous for its ride-sharing app, is currently testing driverless technology in some of its cars in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which are all manned by a back-up driver. Swedish automaker Volvo, long acclaimed for garnering excellent safety records for its cars, have conducted self-driving tests on US and European roads, with the view of conducting a large-scale public testing in Sweden (2017) and the United Kingdom (UK; 2018).

Although not exactly an automotive company, Google is currently recognized as the leader in developing driverless technology, having conducted more tests than any other automaker. Although Google hasn’t explicitly laid out plans to manufacture its own line of cars, the development of its driverless bubble car points to a possible future direction for the company. Among traditional automakers, Volvo currently leads in developing driverless technology, albeit labelling them as part of its efforts to developing more safety features for its cars, although it has recently explored the creation of robotic trucks for freight transportation.

Understanding the self driving car

The ins and outs of a self driving car is certainly a matter of curiosity in today’s driver-led world, what with the sheer complexities one may rightfully assume in providing unmanned cars with their own sense of direction. However, it’s intriguing that most of the components used for self-driving technology are currently in productions, as they’re mainly formed out of a combination of sensors and computer systems that detect vision. Most self driving cars in use today use the so-called “Lidar” (Light Detection and Ranging), which is meant to provide thorough scans of the environment where they’re moving about.

Simulating the environment through generating 3D images is made possible through the collaborative functioning of traditional radar, cameras, and global positioning systems (GPS), among many others. A Self driving car can also use software that processes all the data collected by all the aforementioned components and ultimately drives them accordingly. Those kinds of software have detailed records of all kinds of possible obstructions found in the street, such as incoming pedestrians, animals, and other objects, that enable self-driving cars to stop and change directions, as necessary.

Current challenges to self-driving cars

Although the ball is currently rolling on the production of self-driving cars, there are some current challenges automakers involved in their development have to thoroughly address. In times of emergency, conventional cars are operated instinctively by drivers, while the same may not apply to a self driving cars, given their calculative nature. Such, therefore, may reach the point where self-driving cars may have to choose between the lives of their passengers and those of others it has affected in the event it figures in a collision – pedestrians and passengers from other cars alike.

Another consideration automakers have to take when developing self-driving cars is the need for updates on the present legislation governing road safety. Given that driverless technology has yet to enter mainstream usage, there’s currently no legislation allowing self-driving cars to be driven everywhere. Insurance companies also have to create certain adjustments on liabilities in the event self-driving cars figure in accidents. Furthermore, automakers have yet to reach the point where driverless technology is guaranteed to be much safer than conventional cars.

Mainstream usage of self-driving cars

Several industry experts estimate that self-driving cars won’t figure regularly on roads until 2030, although driverless technology is seen to grow in usage by 2020. Of course, legislation concerning self-driving cars will have to take place by then – when that will be a matter of serious debate, however, has yet to be known. At present, driverless technology is limited to a certain number of prototypes ran by automakers and technology firms, as well as in high-end offerings currently in production.

Tesla, for instance, has a cruise control system in its Model S sedan called the Autopilot, a form of driverless technology that stabilizes the car’s lane position in roads, as well as its distance from other cars and the speed limit. Autopilot commands steering functions to enable the car to stay in the proper positions of roads, albeit without discounting the controls set by drivers themselves. Volvo’s self-driving features, particularly in its XC90 sport-utility vehicle (SUV), provides an array of safety features that enable the car to adapt as it runs on cruise control, be assisted for proper lane position, and access emergency systems conveniently.

Although self-driving technology is nowhere near yet to what many have come to speculate from various sci-fi flicks, its ongoing development by a handful of capable automakers can spell its impending introduction to mainstream usage sooner than you’d probably think.