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While the buzz of self-driving cars only started in recent years, the first self-sufficient and truly autonomous cars appeared in the 1970s. Unveiled in 1977 by S. Tsugawa and his colleagues at Japan’s Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering Laboratory, the first ever autonomous car was equipped with two cameras that used analog computer technology for signal processing and was capable of speeds up to 30km/h.

A major step forward then came from German aerospace engineer Ernst Dickmanns at Bundeswehr University Munich who inaugurated a series of projects in the 1980s that led to the pilot of the Mercedes S-Class. From Munich to Odense in Denmark, the car clocked more than 1,600km at a maximum speed of 180km/h with about 95% of the distance travelled fully automatically.

The success of these vehicles directed research away from cars guided by inductive signals, pushing it towards vision-based systems for lateral guidance. Since then, many major companies and research organisations have been working to develop prototypes of self-driving cars. Some of these were semi-autonomous, requiring the driver to step in and take over, while others had the ambition of going fully autonomous, requiring no assistance.

Photo Credit: Gardens by the Bay

Indeed, with automated transport, we could be less reliant on manpower and see improvements in safety and productivity. In Singapore, the North-East and Downtown metro lines already use driverless technology to improve the punctuality of mass transport and overcome manpower constraints. In 2016, Gardens by the Bay, one of Singapore’s top attractions, launched the Auto Rider for public rides, the first fully-operational self-driving vehicle in Asia. Fully electric-powered and air-conditioned, each vehicle has a capacity of 10 people, and provides visitors with an alternative mode of getting around.

But while autonomous vehicles have been made possible with the advancement of technology, how ready are we to have self-driving cars on our roads?

You would think after smartphones and “smart houses”, we would be more than ready to welcome smart(er) vehicles on our roads. Yet, as of today, only a handful of U.S. states have passed laws permitting autonomous cars on their roads and are approved mostly for testing purposes. Only recently has The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill, the SELF DRIVE Act which if passed could add 100,000 test cars per year. When Tesla announced in 2015 that it would introduce its Autopilot technology through a software update for cars equipped with the system to allow autonomous driving, many industry experts raised questions regarding its legal status.

And for good reasons.

The history of autonomous cars, while remarkable, is far from glorious. Whilst engineers hope the development of a self-driving car will cut down on road accidents and save lives, there have been incidents of “smart” vehicles not being able to detect lane markings, read traffic signals and worse still, apply the brakes. The first fatal accident happened just last year.

However, the automotive industry remains undaunted.

This June, Audi launched the most advanced self-driving car yet. It allows drivers to sit back and watch television while the car drives itself at up to 60km/h in heavy traffic – despite warnings from across the industry that a system allowing drivers to take their eyes off the road for a prolonged period of time is fundamentally unsafe.

Photo Credit: Audi

So, even while the evolution of self-driving cars continues to excite people, the truth is that the world is probably not ready to take their hands off the wheel yet.

While some people aspire to get to a future where a ride to work means catching up on Netflix, getting to that reality isn’t as simple. There are several key challenges to be addressed – amongst them connectivity options, speed, reliability and even the potential for autonomous cars to be hacked. But therein lies the opportunity for industry-wide efforts like 5G and specific products from companies like Qualcomm and Intel to demonstrate their engineering expertise.

When this reality finally arrives with the support and approval from authorities and industry experts, we can expect automakers to make their bucks by selling rides, not cars. It could mean a redesign of a car’s interior, where the front seat might be reoriented to face the back seat, so passengers are able to converse as they would at home or in a café. It could mean the eradication of driving licenses and the need to own a car, if it can be summoned to us when ordered. It could empower the elderly, who otherwise could not drive a car on their own. It could mean a more efficient transport system with no more road accidents.

It could also mean a new era of advertising. As drivers transform into passengers and cars turn into mobile living rooms, we will see an increase in digital media consumption, whether through mobile phones or systems embedded in the vehicle. A report by McKinsey and Company estimates the additional free time in the car could generate about $5.6 billion a year in digital revenue for each additional minute that vehicle occupants spend on the internet – as much as $140 billion if half their free time in the car, or roughly 25 minutes, is devoted to daily web surfing and shopping. On the other hand, advertisers might have to re-evaluate the use of traditional media, particularly outdoor media, as consumers no longer need to keep their eyes on the roads.

While autonomous vehicles have the potential to revolutionise the media industry, the obvious question is how quickly self-driving cars will be adopted by enough people to impact the marketplace.

One thing is for certain. It might be years or even decades before we live in a world of driverless cars, and while the journey to get there might get bumpy along the way, we can be sure that it will be an interesting ride.