Aerial photo of spahetti traffic system in Wanchai, Hong Kong. Credit: Marcel Lam

+ Advances in technology combined with the opportunities driverless cars will create mean they could soon be commercially available.

By 2020, I think you’ll be able to go out and buy a car that will control itself. Technological advances will drive the rapid arrival of driverless cars onto the market, certainly. But the key reason I think we’ll see autonomous vehicles sooner rather than later is because of the opportunities they open up.

I’d expect the first driverless cars you see to be part of fleets providing mobility services – sort of a cross between car sharing and a taxi service. Computer control opens up the potential for such services to enjoy very high utilisation rates, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them drive down the total cost of motoring by 40-70% per mile compared with traditional car ownership.

That’s a significant incentive for anyone. When you also think about the time you could save because you don’t have to control the vehicle, why wouldn’t you want a driverless car? And that’s without considering safety. Most of us have at least dinged our cars at some point. So surely, the prospect of error-free, time-efficient and low-cost driving is enticing?

There are big potential benefits for cities and society too. Imagine our major cities with fewer cars, yet more accessible than ever. Imagine the cost savings they could make by using driverless bus or other transit systems. Ponder the potential uses for space that was once dedicated to parking. Consider the lives saved by eliminating the accidents caused by human error. Celebrate the upcoming mobility of people who can’t drive – the young, the elderly, and the disabled.  

Will people really give up control of their cars so easily, the sceptics ask. The cars we buy today have evolved to make driving more comfortable, safer and easier. Cruise control, anti-lock brakes, airbags, navigation, parking assistance, and collision avoidance systems are already common. The majority of the newest features are effectively taking some of the driving away from the driver. Driverless vehicles are merely the next step in an evolution that most people have already accepted.

But will this next step really happen so soon? Consider that almost every major car manufacturer, many of their suppliers, and some of the biggest tech companies are developing fully automated vehicles to operate alongside our current fleet of manually operated vehicles. Add to this that many governments have, or are developing, rules and regulations for driverless vehicles. Even insurance companies and telecommunications providers are watching the progress knowing that driverless technology will shift ownership and involve exchanging of unprecedented amounts of data.

There are potential downsides, of course. For example, planners must look at whether autonomous vehicles could encourage urban sprawl if people begin to commute further by car because rather than losing time driving, the have found time for other activities. Security must be considered carefully if people are to be reassured that their cars are not vulnerable to hacking.

However, I’m sure these and any other remaining roadblocks will be overcome and I won’t be surprised if my car is doing the driving for me by 2020.