Driverless cars—also called an autonomous vehicles—are all over the news. Although we keep hearing about them, there’s still tons of confusion over what exactly is a driverless car, how it works, and when it’s coming. Fortunately, we’ve combed sources and pulled together answers to your driverless car FAQ list:

How do driverless cars work?

In a driverless car, computerized technology does all of the driving and navigating work that a human would do in a traditional vehicle. There aren’t yet any cars that can function completely without a human behind the wheel, though many cars have autonomous features (like Tesla) and many companies are developing similar autonomous features with the goal of driverlessness.

Companies developing driverless technology employ a few different means of achieving vehicles that can drive without human involvement, including GPS, cameras, radar, and lasers.

LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging and is both an acronym and a portmanteau of “light” and “laser,” is largely thought to be the most precise way to direct driverless vehicles. But, it’s expensive. LiDAR is a type of sensor that bounces laser light off of objects to create 3D images of the surroundings, creating 3D maps of both natural and human-made environments with precision and accuracy down to just a few centimeters. Cars using LiDAR technology wouldn’t even need headlights (or streetlights for that matter).

Tesla, with a flourish that’s become familiar to their brand, announced that their future fully driverless vehicles wouldn’t use LiDAR technology, instead relying on, “a combination of simple cameras, radar (which uses radio waves to estimate distances to objects that are farther away), and ultrasound (which uses sound waves to estimate the distance to objects in the immediate vicinity).” Vehicle software is usually cloud-based and can therefore connect with other smart vehicles as well as the vehicle manufacturer for continuous updates.

Cadillac "Super Cruise"Photo Credit: General Motors

Why won’t driverless cars work?

Philosophical concerns might be the biggest current hurdle driverless vehicles must overcome before they’re ready for consumers. Cars travel in an extremely unforgiving environment: pedestrians, closely-traveling other vehicles, weather, animals, and road terrain all mean that whatever tech takes over for humans must be incredibly precise, and there isn’t any room for error.

Debates continue about how to properly “teach” smart technology to think and reason like a human would. And, driverless vehicles must be able to choose—in an instant—whether to put its occupants in danger or put a person outside the car in danger (think: a child runs into the road, but the only option for swerving is a brick wall—what then?).

Other technical kinks still need working out, such as: what does a driverless car do when it meets a cyclist at a four-way stop?

If governmental regulatory agencies and vehicle manufacturers can’t figure out a way to teach driverless vehicle technology to think and react as a human would, we might not see driverless vehicles on the road.

When will driverless cars be available? When are driverless cars coming?

Some companies with driverless technology in development believe they’ll have them ready for the market in just a few years:

  • Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, said the company will have driverless vehicles on the market sometime between January 2018 and January 2019.
  • Ford and Google give 2020 as their date.
  • Chinese tech giant Baidu says it’ll introduce driverless vehicles to U.S. markets in 2018.
  • BMW says 2021.

While Tesla is already beta-testing autonomous features with consumers, the company adamantly states that a human driver must remain fully engaged when using those features. Many other automakers and technology companies (like Google and BMW) don’t believe relying on humans to act as a backup in case the technology fails is a viable plan. Therefore, they say, their driverless tech is not ready for market. 

Will driverless cars catch on?

If fully driverless vehicles (also called “level 4” autonomous vehicles) really do hit the market in the next few years, some insiders believe regulations and consumer attitudes will change quickly enough that driverless cars will be mainstream by as soon as 15 years from now.

Who makes driverless cars?

Most driverless vehicle development is kept tightly under wraps (except for carefully orchestrated publicity events), but as of now we know the following companies have driverless vehicles in development:

Who invented driverless cars?

Autonomous technology has been dreamed of since the early twentieth century, though executives from Tesla, Google, or others might claim they are the true driverless car pioneers. Early driverless tech was even showcased in 1950, though there isn’t one standout inventor-name like Thomas Edison or Marie Curie.

How safe are driverless cars?

Fully driverless cars aren’t ready for the open road yet, but when the technology is perfected and they have enough test miles under their belt, driverless cars will be incredibly safe, perhaps saving many, if not all, of the 1.2 million lives lost to traffic accidents globally each year. Why are they so safe? Tech Crunch provides the following evidence:

  • Human driver error is responsible for 94 percent of all crashes across the planet.
  • Autonomous vehicles don’t drive drunk, don’t drive distracted and don’t fall asleep at the wheel. (Alcohol is now responsible for more than a third of all traffic-related fatalities worldwide, and according to the National Sleep Foundation, 69 percent of adult drivers report driving while drowsy at least once a month.)
  • Self-driving cars are wired with cameras, infrared sensors, networked maps and a host of other software, which empowers them to accurately avoid dangers in ways humans can’t.
  • Driverless cars can brake faster, swerve quicker and anticipate changes in road conditions that are imperceptible to the human eye (such as obstacles beyond the visible range of headlights).
  • Robots also communicate with each other more efficiently and effectively than human-navigated vehicles.

Recent headlines, like the first driver death in a vehicle with autopilot—a Tesla—might have you still wondering: are driverless cars safe? But it’s been reported that the driver of the Tesla that crashed on May 7 may have been watching a DVD, rather than remaining engaged behind the wheel, as Tesla insists its drivers must, even while using autonomous features. So while the industry consensus is that driverless cars, when ready, will be safer for our roads than human drivers, cars with autonomous features aren’t yet ready to completely take over.

How will driverless cars change cities?

“In the future, self-driving cars will not just be navigating cities, but helping to run them,” says Floris van de Klashorst, vice president of connected driving experiences at HERE.

The idea is that with precise navigation details, driverless vehicles will communicate with each other about road conditions—and everything else in their environment—forming an intelligent swarm. How might this play out practically? “Making cars part of the infrastructure of connected cities will allow transportation administrators to help a city adapt to what is happening within it. Take, for example, the ability to change traffic lights to let ambulances through,” says CNET.

Other possible changes to cities are more theoretical, but fun to imagine. Congestion will probably be cut way down (driverless cars can travel very closely together and communicate to reduce traffic). Cities might even sprawl bigger and bigger, because when you can sleep (or work, or read, or practice the violin) while your car drives itself, commute time matters less. Cities with driverless cars would no doubt be safer for pedestrians (and pets), and you can bet blaring horns would soon become a thing of the past (computers don’t get road rage, at least not yet).

Google Self-Driving CarPhoto Credit: Google

How will driverless cars change the world?

One of the biggest selling points of driverless cars for people across the spectrum is safety: since 94% of vehicle crashes are caused by driver error, driverless vehicles have the potential to make our world so much safer.

Why are driverless cars bad?

If you love to drive, the prospect of no longer being able to do so is a clear negative.

Also, driverless cars don’t yet have the ability to think and react–and most importantly, reason–like a human can, and if developers aren’t able to perfect the smart technology, driverless cars could be a real danger.

Why are driverless cars good?

Driverless cars can save lives, reduce congestion and transform cities, and give people more time back that they’ve previously spent commuting. Another reason driverless cars are good is their potential to help people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to travel by personal car become more independently mobile (the elderly, people with physical challenges).

How does Google’s driverless car work?

Google’s driverless car works by employing LiDAR technology to map the world. After much experimentation, Google has decided to limit the functions of their driverless vehicle rather than rely on a human to pick up where the car leaves off.

When was Google’s driverless car invented?

An early model of Google’s driverless car was invented in 2005, and they began developing the current model in 2009.

Can I buy a driverless car?

Not yet, but you can buy cars with autonomous driving features.

How much will driverless cars cost?

No company has a market-ready driverless vehicle model available for the general public—nor has any company publicized a price-point, but right now the technology would cost between $70,000 and $100,000 (on top of the original car price). Reports say that by the time driverless cars hit the market, they’re likely to cost between $3,000 and $7,000 more than cars do now.

Are driverless cars legal?

Fully driverless cars don’t exist yet, but the technology is developing faster than legislation. Traffic laws are determined by state in the U.S., and several are attempting to get laws on the books now for driverless technology.

Several states have passed laws allowing cars with autonomous features to conduct road tests on their public streets: California, Michigan, Florida, Nevada, Arizona, North Dakota, Tennessee, the District of Columbia, and Utah. But in each state, a human driver must be ready to take the wheel (and the car must be equipped for them to do so).


Have another question about driverless cars? Ask below.

  • Sirius Source

    might wanna fact check those numbers again

    2016 Price for semiconductor lasers used in LIDAR sensors falls below USD 150; this reduces the hardware/computing power costs for autonomous vehicles with 3D Lidars to below 10,000 USD.

    2022 The cost for autonomous vehicle hardware (sensors and computing power) has come down to 1500 USD.