Is Google’s vision for driverless cars really the future? Plenty of autonomous vehicles are already on the road, says David Robson, but they’re not what you imagine…

We’ve heard a lot about Google’s cars. What’s the reality?
Given the media coverage, it would be easy to assume that Google is the only company working on autonomous vehicles. Certainly, the company has made some great leaps in designing a sophisticated system that combines a 3D “Street View” map, with on board cameras, laser radar and artificial intelligence. So far, Google has tested cars on more than a million kilometres of road. It’s a vital step, since it helps train the software to deal with the unexpected. “Every mile they put on the cars is an opportunity to learn what comes up when driving,” says Larry Burns, who works as a consultant for Google.

It is by no means a one-horse race, though. “Almost every car company is working on automated vehicles,” says Sven Beiker, the executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford. Volvo, for instance, is set to trial 100 or so driverless cars on the streets of Gothenburg in Sweden by 2017. As Beiker points out, car companies have an important advantage, since they have tried and tested automated systems – such as “traffic jam assist” – that already take control of braking and steering in heavy traffic.

Still, we’re years away from seeing driverless vehicles hit the road, right?
You may be surprised. In Pilbara, Western Australia, heavy-duty trucks are already gliding along the dirt tracks with no driver at the wheel. They are truly gigantic beasts, weighing more than 500 tonnes and stretching more than 16m (52ft) in length. These autonomous trucks are helping workers in Pilbara’s mines. The idea is to reduce the risk of human error – often caused by fatigue – while also improving the efficiency of the site. So far, around 50 of the driverless trucks have driven millions of kilometres – and hauled 200 million tonnes of material. Similar fleets of driverless vehicles can also be found in other parts of Australia, and Chile.

The military is also interested: early this year, a fleet of “zombie” trucks trundled through Fort Hood; they were the US Army’s latest attempts to build autonomous vehicles that could sweep through conflict regions without risking the lives of personnel. And the Sartre project in Europe recently sent a convoy of autonomous lorries along the motorways of Spain. Such an approach could even help save the environment. “By keeping the space between ‘class A’ trucks constant and optimising the aerodynamics, you can save 15% of the fuel,” says Burns. “And you can keep trucks moving 24/7 and organise their traffic flow – and move more freight at night.” Such arguments have led some to conclude that we will soon see many more of these autonomous lorries on the motorway – potentially setting a precedent for personal cars of the future.

“They are important because they help us to understand what self-driving vehicles do,” says Beiker. It could also help to build communication systems so that different vehicles can talk to each other and surrounding equipment – which may be an important aspect of future driverless cars. At the very least, their progress also underlines the fact that there are many approaches to driverless technology, besides Google’s.

Driverless trucks aren’t going to help me doze on the way to work, though.
For that, you may need to move to Milton Keynes in the UK, which will see a small fleet of autonomous taxis taking to the roads by 2017. It may seem an unlikely location for a technological revolution; the “new town” is often the butt of many British jokes, based on its supposed suburban mediocrity. The cars won’t be privately owned, though – you’d need to book with your smartphone – and they are decidedly sluggish, racing around the designated pathways at a grand 12mph (19km/h). But they could be a sign of greater things to come. Burns, for instance, points out that shared fleets of driverless cars could give greater mobility to poor, elderly, blind and disabled people.

So driverless cars aren’t just a rich man’s plaything?
Exactly the opposite, Burns says – this technology could be a life saver. Some 1.2 million people worldwide die in car accidents every year. “It is epidemic in scale,” he says. Almost all of the accidents are caused by human error, which could be prevented by giving the brain work to a computer. “They see 360 degrees around the vehicle, they don’t drink and drive and they have enormous processing capabilities to make decisions about what to do,” says Burns. It is for this reason that he thinks the technology is of global importance. “If we had a medicine that could eliminate 90% of the deaths – wouldn’t we try to get to that end game as soon as possible? Realising these autonomous vehicles just one year sooner would save a million lives.”

To find out more of Burns’s views on driverless car technology, check out his presentation at the World-Changing Ideas Summit in New York on 21 October. BBC Future will be covering the event in full – so watch this space