Driverless cars: From science fiction to a road near you

Self-driving cars have been a staple of Hollywood sci-fi movies for years but it may not be long until they're speeding along next to you, ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward reports.

It is no longer the realm of science fiction; driverless cars will soon be coming to a road near you.

Two cities in China have just been given the license to run autonomous vehicles, without a safety driver.

The latest example of man replaced by machine, in this case, technology is threatening taxi drivers.

We already have cars that can park themselves and we have long had cruise control, this is just the next advance towards making us humans complete backseat drivers.

We were invited to go for a spin in the first driverless fleet offered by Baidu.

It started out as a search engine, China’s equivalent of Google, and like its American counterpart it was quick to see a future in autonomous vehicles.

Vehicles have a 360-degree view of conditions.

The company is the largest provider of self-driving taxis in the world, operating in 10 Chinese cities.

This month it got the green light to roll out robotaxis without a safety driver. At the moment, only Chinese ID card holders can use them but for the purposes of television we were allowed to get into a vehicle that had been given a pre-programmed 11-kilometre route.

That doesn’t sound long, and it only took around 15 minutes, but being out on a public road on the outskirts of Chongqing, with nobody in the front of the car, was a little disconcerting at first.

All you need to do when you get in is press ‘Go’ on a monitor on the back of (what would be) the driver’s seat.

It felt really strange to drive off and watch the steering wheel turn on its own, but the vision is that you can sit back, relax, do some work, have a snack, or take a nap. And you don’t have to engage in any unwanted small talk with anyone.

The ultimate aim is to remove the steering wheel and Baidu, among others, has already built a car ready for when a licence is granted to put such a vehicle on the road.

The passenger simply hits 'go' to get it started.

The concept of autonomous vehicles is centuries-old, according to some records the idea dates to the 1500s. And in the early 20th century inventors made remote-controlled cars with the same idea in mind.

But the race really took off 20 years ago and since then various big names – Google, Tesla, BMW, Mercedes – have been competing to make it safer than your average driver.

95% of accidents on the road are caused by human error and those behind the driverless technology point out that a computer won’t get drunk, tired, or distracted on the phone.

There are cameras fitted to the body of the vehicles that give it a 360-degree view of the close and long-range conditions.

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These cars are put through millions of simulations to test them in various road scenarios, conditions and light. They should have a split-second reaction time.

Earlier this year, two companies in California introduced robotaxis, and they have proved popular, but persuading people and governments the technology is safe is one of the biggest hurdles, and like all artificial intelligence there is a risk of your ride being hacked.

Last week the UK government launched a consultation on standards for self-driving vehicles to ensure they are “as safe as a competent and careful human driver.”

The Department for Transport has made it a target to see self-driving cars, coaches, and lorries on UK motorways as early as next year.