5 Things You Need to Know About Self-Driving Cars

03/12/2015 04:04 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

Not long ago, self-driving cars sounded like something out of a science fiction novel or George Lucas film. However, Google, Volvo, and other tech companies and automakers have developed self-driving car prototypes and are in the process of testing them for safety, accuracy, and practicality.

Current State of Self-Driving Cars

When you look at the state of the automated vehicle industry - if you could even call it an industry at this point - there are three major factors to consider: technical capabilities, economical barriers, and the legal framework.

The first aspect to consider is whether the technical capability to create a sustainable and reliable self-driving car is here. According to leading automakers, this appears to be the least of the industry's problems. The technology seems to be present, but it's a question of whether the world is financially and legally prepared.

Financially, the companies and organizations participating in the developing and manufacturing of the first self-driving cars are fine, too. While it will cost billions of dollars to fully carve out this market, educate consumers, and produce automated vehicles on a large enough scale to bring the price per vehicle down to a reasonable figure, it's money these corporations have and are willing to spend on what they feel is a lucrative opportunity to change the course of history.

The real issue is how lawmakers will respond and whether local governments will give the thumbs up for allowing self-driving vehicles on public roadways. Much of this will depend on the cars themselves, as well as the response from the general public. Will the manufacturers and automakers be able to prove these driverless cars are both safe and reliable? The answer to that question will be critical in the coming years and decades. 

Various Car Brands Lead the Way 

Several car brands worldwide are getting involved in the race for the first mass-produced self-driving car - namely Volvo, Tesla, and Japan's big three: Toyota, Nissan, and Honda. Each is taking a slightly different approach, but the goal is the same: manufacture and market a reliable and safe self-driving car that the public can get behind.

In addition to these automakers, one of the world's largest technology corporations - Google - is also attempting to get a foot in the door. In fact, they've done more than merely show interest. Google already has its own prototype - which some have already spotted on roadways between San Francisco and Palo Alto. 

5 Things You Need to Know 

While there is a lot of hype and plenty of rumors surrounding the development of self-driving cars, much is worthless and merely fodder for speculative conversation. However, there are some facts the manufacturers and individuals close to the issue have revealed. Let's take a look at some of the things you need to know about self-driving vehicles:

  • Google's car has a face. According to Google, widespread success will be difficult to attain unless consumers become more comfortable with automation. Unfortunately, though, many are inherently hostile towards technology and aren't easily swayed. In response to this, Google will attempt to humanize their first driverless car by giving it a built-in 'face' on the front of the vehicle to make it as friendly as possible.
  • Audi is working on a combo. Audi is reportedly working on a model that incorporates both human and automated features. The steering wheel has two buttons that must be pressed simultaneously to trigger piloted mode, and drivers can also take over the wheel if necessary. Volvo is taking a similar approach as well. This is likely the direction lawmakers will want to go and automakers taking this approach could be at an advantage over fully driverless vehicles.
  • Carmakers will take responsibility. The big questions involve the insurance industry: Who will claim responsibility or fault in accidents? How do you differentiate between human error and vehicle malfunctions? In the beginning stages - at least - it appears that the automakers will take much of that burden. According to Tim Stevens, who sat down with Anders Eugensson, Volvo Cars' director of government affairs, "When the car is being manually driven, the driver will be at fault in an accident. But, if the car is in autonomous mode and causes a crash, Volvo will take responsibility."
  • Japan is working together. Japan has announced that all three of the country's major automakers - Toyota, Nissan, and Honda - will join together and combine efforts to propel the country past the competition. The goal is to share ideas and technology in order to cut production and development costs and guard against weaknesses.
  • The future is here. While fully self-driving cars aren't available to the general public quite yet, many are already experiencing some of the luxuries. For example, Ford now incorporates "adaptive cruise control" into some of its newest models, which takes over braking and acceleration in traffic. In Europe, some test tracks are allowing the general public to see what all the hype is about. The technology is here; it will simply take refinement and a healthy dose of persuasion to convince lawmakers and the general public.
Move Over Drivers 

While it's difficult to imagine a world where roadways are filled with automated vehicles and driverless cars, that reality doesn't appear too far off. As you can see, the technology and money is present. Ultimately, it will be up to these automakers to prove these vehicles are safer and more reliable alternatives to existing cars. Move over drivers - you may no longer be needed.