Of course, having one car drive you to work is one thing. In Masdar City, thousands of people ride in autonomous cabs that run on electric power and read markers on the road for navigation. There is no need for remote charging stations, because the cabs power up at a car terminal while waiting for people to load. There are now 10 taxis in operation, carrying about 25,000 passengers per month, according to 2GetThere, the company that developed the Masdar City robotaxis.
Robotaxis transport about 25,000 people per month in Masdar City. There are currently 10 vehicles in the fleet. Credit: 2GetThere.
There have been no reported accidents since the Masdar City taxis launched in December 2010, according to 2GetThere spokesman Robbert Lohmann, who says autonomous cars for public transit make sense in Masdar City because the road infrastructure is dedicated to the driverless cabs. "The chances of two vehicles coming into contact with each other are extremely remote," he says. "The predictable behavior of automated systems ensures that the random character of accidents as we experience them with manually driven vehicles, such as personal cars or trains, will be avoided."
What about on U.S. roads at highway speeds? Marcial Hernandez, a senior engineer at automaker Volkswagen, says the sensor technology needed for autonomous cars on highways is already available. Many cars can sense when another vehicle passes or automatically slow down to maintain a proper distance from the vehicle ahead of you on the highway (thanks to a technology called adaptive cruise control). A few models, like the Infiniti G, can nudge you back into a lane when your car gets too close to the shoulder.
In a recent research project, Hernandez says, VW developed a feature called Temporary Auto Pilot that uses such sensors and also controls steering. And Cadillac says it's road-testing a similar technology called Super Cruise that allows the driver to take his or her hands off the wheel for short periods of autonomous highway driving.
With Cadillac's Super Cruise technology, the car watches lane markings on the highway to control your speed and position in the lane for hands-free driving. Credit: Cadillac.
These features require advanced Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors, which are sensitive enough to detect curbs and small objects, Hernandez explains. Often found in luxury cars today, Lidar is still too expensive to be included in many low-end vehicles, Hernandez says. That's changing quickly, though; some lower-cost vehicles, such as the Ford Taurus, are equipped with Lidar. But until every car uses the technology, it may be hard for autonomous driving to gain traction.
Another issue hindering the adoption of driverless cars in the U.S., Hernandez says, is that the traffic infrastructure is not yet ready. A driverless car could speed down the highway, but today it wouldn't know a simple condition such as whether a traffic light is green or red, or if a parking space is available at the mall. For robotaxis to be viable, a city would need to build a wireless infrastructure that communicates all of this information to the cars.