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The concept of self-driving cars has come a long way from its inception as a science fiction dream, despite numerous dismissals of the possibility of real autonomous vehicles in our lifetimes. But are self-driving cars still improving, or is the recent spate of autonomous expansion nothing more than a corporate advertising effort as the automotive industry hitches its wagons to the idea of an autonomous future? Here is the truth behind the efficacy and development of autonomous driving technology.

Self-driving cars have seriously improved

There is really no doubting that self-driving cars spent the last few years becoming far more advanced than many of their critics ever assumed was possible. Billion-dollar enterprises such as Ford, Uber and Tesla have garnered impressive press coverage for themselves thanks to their ambitious attempts to test autonomous vehicles around the country. Not all of the media coverage of self-driving vehicles has been positive, however, with a number of car collisions and even a fatality or two proving that autonomous vehicles still have room for improvement.

While many are willing to concede that self-driving cars have improved over the past few years, they still assert that these self-driving vehicles have hit a plateau and have little chance of actually achieving the full autonomy their proponents desire. However, there are plenty of reasons to dismiss this criticism outright, largely because it has no basis in reality and actively ignores the impressive improvements being made across the automotive industry when it comes to self-driving vehicles. The batteries, motors, software and overall driving experience of autonomous vehicles have been slowly but steadily improving in recent times, with some old and lackluster technology finding itself ditched once it has been proven ineffective.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently made waves in the world of self-driving vehicles when he announced that his company’s efforts to produce autonomous vehicles at scale would be ignoring light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology. While some companies such as Google’s subsidiary Waymo have hitched their futures to the idea of LIDAR technology being imperative to the future of self-driving cars, Tesla has declared war on the technology and claimed that its alternative innovation in ‘computer vision’ is a more viable route for the future development of self-driving cars.

LIDAR technology is still relied upon by nearly every company trying to make autonomous vehicles with the exception of Tesla, demonstrating that disruptive and positive progress is still achievable where self-driving cars are concerned. Not everything in the development of autonomous vehicles has gone smoothly, however, and a number of pressing challenges remain.

We need better infrastructure for autonomous vehicles

In many ways, self-driving technology has already surpassed human driving, with autonomous vehicles sometimes even being reported as more capable than humans when it comes to analyzing traffic, charting out the quickest routes and avoiding collisions. No matter how advanced autonomous vehicles become in isolation, they will never become a ubiquitous part of our everyday society until we develop interactive, connected infrastructure that is well-equipped to deal with fleets of robotic vehicles.

Concepts such as ‘intelligent roads’ would maximize the potential of self-driving cars by enabling them to efficiently distribute traffic to reduce congestion. In turn, this saves on fuel as much as it does on frustration. The caveat is that all of this requires significant overhaul of the country’s roads, with Integrated Roadways estimating the cost of smart roads at $4m per mile – twice the price of a conventional road.

Despite the fact that creating smart infrastructure is a necessary precursor to a prevalence of autonomous vehicles, we should not expect any progress on this front anytime soon. One thing that is indisputable is that infrastructure development has fallen by the wayside in recent years. Infrastructure spending was a hot topic in the most recent congressional and presidential elections, yet little federal progress has been made on the issue, effectively guaranteeing that US roads and bridges will keep decaying in the near-future.

To illustrate how severe the US infrastructure crisis is, civil engineers gave US infrastructure a D- in its engineers’ report card – and this is not even the first time that has happened. After all, virtually all infrastructure development in the US depends upon the federal government’s spending and direction-setting, with few state or local governments having the money or political willpower to upgrade their infrastructure for self-driving cars.

The self-driving future is not quite what we think

Autonomous vehicles are going to be an important part of our future, yet not in the way that many everyday people think. Self-driving cars will likely prove to be a luxury item, for instance, whereas autonomous trucks and other shipping vehicles will become the standard across the US. Wherever logistics are concerned, autonomous technology will keep developing towards becoming a commercial reality without a hitch.

Self-driving cars that ferry passengers to and from are suffering from many challenges – notably a lack of safe infrastructure and PR crises stemming from auto collisions. Self-driving technology is moving forward at an impressive pace, just not in the direction that many everyday drivers might expect.

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