Cars that Drive Us

By 2050 cars will drive themselves, reducing road traffic accident rates


Self-driving cars are no longer a thing of the future but have become a reality of the present. Many of the vehicles we can buy today already have parking assistance systems or other technologies that relieve a driver of some of the usual tasks. Science and technology are but a few steps from achieving complete autonomy.

In Spain and other countries, tests are being carried out with cars that drive on their own. For several years there has been talk about autonomous, robotic, driverless vehicles. They are capable of imitating human abilities to drive and control a car while at the same time taking into account their surroundings and responding as required. The only thing the driver will have to do is choose the destination, and the car does all the rest.

For this to happen there must be three interconnected systems. In the first place, for the car to be independent it must be capable of locating itself geographically. To do this, highly sophisticated GPS systems are used.

Secondly, there must be a dynamic recognition system (cameras, lasers and sensors) to identify in real time any strange objects or unexpected elements along the route: obstacles on the road, pedestrians, rain… 

And finally, there has to be a programme that processes the information it receives and responds correctly –accelerates, brakes, turns, overtakes– when necessary. This last element is possible thanks to advances in systems of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

They’ll cut the accident rate

One of the advantages of driverless cars is increased safety. According to data from the General Directorate of Traffic (DGT), 90% of the accidents in 2016 in Spain were caused by human errors. In this sense, independent driving systems will reduce the number of risk situations –like excessive speed, incorrect passing, and running off the road– and thus help reduce the accident rate. It’s thought that by 2050, thanks to the generalised use of autonomous vehicles, accidents could drop by more than 80%.

Mobility will also improve. For example, people who have some physical impediment to driving, or are too old or too young to drive, will be able to move around without any problems because the car will do everything for them. 

It is also expected that traffic in the large cities will be more fluid. Cars will move at a steadier pace, thus avoiding traffic jams and making the best use of the streets.

 Another important aspect is fuel efficiency. The vehicles are designed to optimise consumption. By avoiding brusque changes of speed or hard braking, CO2 emissions will also drop.

 Another advantage for the driver will be the possibility of using his travel time for other activities: reading, talking on the phone, eating or watching a movie. The inside of the cars will thus become a space for rest and leisure.

 For years the auto industry has been researching and working on developing driverless vehicles. For example, Toyota and Apple. The latter has confirmed the development of an automatic driving system, although it hasn’t revealed whether it’s just a programme or whether they’re actually building a car. 

In 2020 autonomous cars will be on the market 

Tesla has announced that soon all its cars will soon be completely autonomous. It also sells a semi-autonomous vehicle called the Tesla S. 

 For its part, at the start of 2017 Audi presented the Audi Q7, an autonomous car developed with the Nvidia company that bases its system of automatic driving, called PilotNet, on artificial intelligence. In addition, the new version of the A8 is equipped with technology that raises the car to the level of semi-autonomous.

Google has also been one of the pioneers in working with this kind of automobiles. The American giant regards them as so important that it has created Waymo, a firm that specialises in developing driverless systems as part of the Alphabet conglomerate.

In Europe there was the “European Truck Platooning Challenge 2016” in which a group of autonomous lorries rode for several days on the continent’s roads. 

And in Spain, in 2015, a car drove the 599 kilometres between Madrid and Vigo without the driver doing a thing.



New uses of space

When they arrive, autonomous cars will be a revolution not only on driving but also in the lives of people and the ways cities and highways are set up. All these changes need planning and adapting to the new context. For example, one of the possisble comsequences of the introduction of these cars would be the less traffic in the cities.  According to the expert Blaine Leonard in statements to SmartCitiesDive, some 30% of the traffic in business districts in San Francisco and Los Angeles are made up of people who are looking for a place to park their vehicle. If autonomous cars can drive alone to a place outside the centre, which would also be cheaper, it wouldn’t be necessary to  dedicate so much space for parking.   

In addition, it would no longer be necessary to systems like regulated parking zones or tose for the exclusive use of residents. The ‘leftover’ space in the cities  could be used for different ends (widening the footpaths or building more parks, leisure areas, cultural zones…). In fact, Kinder Baumgardner, head of the architecture studio in Houston of the multinational firm SWA, proposes reutilising the underground parking garages for homes. They would be cheaper because of the lack of natural light but also more spacious.

Autonomous cars are almost here. The world is preparing and the future won’t wait.

The same thing will happen with parking places. If this comes about, there will be more free space in the cities that could be used for different ends (widening the footpaths or building more parks, leisure areas, cultural zones…). In fact, Kinder Baumgardner, head of the architecture studio in Houston of the multinational firm SWA, proposes reutilising the underground parking garages for homes. They would be cheaper because of the lack of natural light but also more spacious.

The structure of highways would also need to be adapted to this new context. For example, it will be important that the lines marking the separation of different traffic lanes be clearly painted so that the cars can “see” better. And traffic signals will no longer be necessary because the vehicles will know perfectly the exit they should use and the speed they should move.

Although maybe the biggest engineering work will be to lay down optic fiber and sensors along the roads so as to collect information and share it with the vehicles that are moving along that stretch. In Utah, in the United States, they been introducing this system for 20 years, and the state of Ohio, as part of the project for intelligent cities, will spend 15 million dollars to install fiber and carry out different tests in this field.

It’s also thought that the reduction in traffic and the ease of movement in cities will be greater, and that more people will be willing to live outside the city centres and commute to work daily.

 But to get to that point, it will first be necessary to overcome a series of obstacles. One of the most important is the reliability and precision of the road maps. High-definition mapmaking is one of the essential pieces for the proper functioning of the autonomous car. To this end, companies that develop maps and GPS systems will have to improve and refine their products. 

Another matter to take into account is how these vehicles are perceived and how much they will be accepted by society. Drivers continue to be reticent about these technologies, either because they like to drive in the traditional way or because they’re wary of the new system.

Finally, governments will have to pass appropriate laws for there to be automatic driving. Currently, a 1968 Vienna convention about driving demands that drivers maintain control over their vehicle at all times, and does not approve highly automatic driving. While the intention is to modify this norm, debate continues, and the different countries must make their own laws about all this.

Spain did not adhere to the Vienna convention, so in theory autonomous cars could move freely here. Right now, it is one of the leading countries developing this technology, and since 2015 it permits tests or research about autonomous vehicles on roads opened to traffic. And conscious of the technological advances in this sector, the DGT has regulated the use of systems that help drivers park without having to touch the steering wheel. Spain also has a rule book that regulates this kind of vehicles. The document is a first step toward setting regulations about autonomous vehicles in the country.

The speed at which technology is developing will be what determines how fast all these problems will be resolved. Autonomous cars are almost here. The world is preparing and the future won’t wait.

Text: Eva Fernández