When the first cars hit British roads in the late 19th Century, they had an unusual safety feature. Every “horseless carriage”, as they were known, was chaperoned by a man walking in front waving a red flag or carrying a lantern, to warn other road users of the vehicle's approach. There was a certain reassurance, it seems, from having a human present, even if done in such a preposterous way.
These early precautions – known the “red flag laws” – seem laughable now. But future generations may look at the safety measures that are imposed on self-driving – or robotic - cars in much the same way.
On the rare occasions these autonomous vehicles are allowed out in public they are usually chaperoned by a human who sits in the “driver’s seat”, ready to take control if something goes wrong. But the nascent industry developing these cars believes this kind of insurance policy will soon go the same way as red flags.
In the US, laws are already being debated, and approved, to allow the vehicles to drive themselves on regular roads. In the US state of Nevada, for example, the government has begun to draft a set of regulations that will allow these vehicles on its roads. One of the proposals is for robotic cars to be identified by red license plates.
Developments like this show that it is a question of when – not if – robotic vehicles hit our roads. And with good reason. Proponents say self-driving cars will save time, fuel, cut traffic jams and prevent some of the estimated 1.2m deaths that occur globally every year due to car accidents.
“Safety is definitely the number one benefit,” says Sven Beiker, the executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University. “In 95% of accidents, human error is at least a contributing factor.” A self-driving car on the other hand cannot become distracted, take a phone call, fall asleep, or drive under the influence of alcohol.
As a result, manufacturers such as Ford have announced that autonomous vehicles are the future. Bill Ford, executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company, recently said that the company sees “the introduction of semi-autonomous driving technology, including driver-initiated ‘auto pilot’ capabilities, and vehicle platooning in limited situations” as early as 2017.
In the longer term, from 2025 onwards he believes we will see the “arrival of smart vehicles capable of fully autonomous navigation, with increased ‘auto pilot’ operating duration, plus the arrival of autonomous valet functions, delivering effortless vehicle parking and storage."
And it is not just Ford who believes in this future. Car manufacturers from GM, BMW, Audi and Volvo are all working on systems that promise to allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel. But it is a project by the search giant Google, that has captured people’s attention.
The firm – which revealed details of its driverless car project in 2010 – has clocked up hundreds of thousands of miles in a fleet of seven vehicles including a Toyota Prius and an Audi TT. It is the evolution of a technology that really came to public consciousness in the 2004 Darpa Grand Challenge, a US military competition that saw robotic cars compete along a desert course. In the first race, none of the cars were able to complete the course. But one year later a car called Stanley, developed by Sebastian Thrun from Stanford University, romped home to claim a $2m prize for completing a 130-mile (210km) course in less than seven hours.