A world where you can summon a car with the swipe of a finger before you allow the car to whisk you away to your chosen destination would have seemed a distant dream just five years ago, the sort of thing one would see in a science-fiction movie like Back to the Future II. Yet, what seemed like a Silicon Valley lark just a few years ago is now one of the least outlandish transportation technologies in development.

Self- driving technology has recently been enjoying heavy investments especially in the UK. In 2016, the government announced new laws for testing driverless vehicles on our roads and an unexpected £20 million investment into the technology. With so much time and money being poured into self-driving technology, car manufactures have been able to develop cars that is good enough for public use.

One such car is the Waymo, designed by Google, which uses a combination of sensors and software to locate itself in the real world combined with highly accurate digital maps. The software can recognise and handle all aspects of the driving and is able to look at objects, people, cars, road marking, signs and traffic lights from a distance of up to two football fields away in all directions. This is all whilst obeying the rules of the road and allowing for multiple unpredictable hazards. Similar self-driving cars designed by Mercedes and Telsa use the same kind of technology.

The advantage of such a revolutionary technology is obvious. The use of self-driving cars allows for better fuel efficiency, efficient traffic flow and less congestion. Communications from the vehicle to other vehicles and buildings such as traffic lights can reduce delays at intersections by reducing an imperfect signal cycle timing. Self-driving cars would also have an ability to sense what's happening up to 8 cars ahead and slow down in advance. Studies show that “if even a tiny percentage of the cars on the road are autonomous, think of a highway dotted with just 2 percent of something like Google's self-driving car, then the number of traffic jams drops drastically.

Most importantly, self-driving technology gives more productive time and safety for users in the car. The cars allow for users to do things without worrying about distracted driving, the idea being that well-programmed computers and sensors can control a vehicle more safely than a person since they cannot be distracted. They promise a safer, cheaper and stress-free form of transport. As well as this, it also means that elderly and disabled people have broader mobility options.

With so many advantages and interest in driverless technology, it’s easy to assume that self-driving cars are ready to go. But before our roads are filled with self-driving cars, car manufacturers must tackle a range of technical and ethical challenges.

First of all, self-driving cars involve huge amount of work in order to properly work everywhere. They can’t cope with temporary road works or lights and can’t drive routes that haven’t been meticulously 3D mapped in advance. Driving is full of unpredictable, bizarre situations and fully self-driving vehicles should be able to cope with everything that the road can throw at them. To solve these problems, there needs to be more lines of computer code, extra sensors and additional levels of redundancy. The problem is that this makes the software complex which adds more probability that something will go wrong.

The Google Car, Waywo, can read the road like a human using the array from the sensors but these sensors come with their own limitations. Simply replacing the human eye with a camera leaves them vulnerable to extreme sunlight, weather or even defective traffic lights. The way this selection of pixels is analysed could be the difference between a safe journey and death.

The Guardian writes about the first known death caused by a self-driving car. “It was disclosed by Tesla Motors on Thursday. The 7 May accident occurred in Williston, Florida, after the driver, Joshua Brown, 40, of Ohio put his Model S into Tesla’s autopilot mode, which is able to control the car during highway driving“. Tesla had said that “against a bright spring sky, the car’s sensors system failed to distinguish a large white 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the highway”.

A risk which you can’t control will be a frightening thing for people. Self-driving cars won’t be accepted unless they are safe and considerably more useful than normal vehicles. It will be hard to convince user of their ‘intelligence’. Accidents like the Tesla crash will continue to cause concern, even while normal car crashes barely make the headlines, making people worry to put full trust in a self-driving car.

Errors in the self-driving cars also bring up another issue. Who is responsible for the actions of the car? If the car makes a decision that saves the user but injures another, who is responsible for the injuries? The legal liabilities of the car are another reason why self-driving cars are still not out to the public. Volvo has been negotiating with the UK car insurance industry to work out who would be held responsible in the event of an accident. They said that “If there is a crash and the car is in self-driving mode, even if the driver is reading a newspaper, then we, Volvo, are responsible”. Meanwhile, Mercedes says that if a situation arises where a car has to choose between saving the lives of its users or those of others, it will save the users.

The future of self-driving cars seems uncertain. Undeniably, the opportunities that the self-driving cars give can be extremely useful and even life changing. Yet, the issues that come with it are not to be dismissed. The issues with the technology currently will surely make a difficult road ahead but with the investment and time, they can be solved to come up with self-driving cars that are 100% driverless and safe.

Buckle up, it’s going to be an interesting ride!