Self-driving cars are coming soon and will revolutionize cities and society

Designer and engineer Bran Ferren says autonomous vehicles will fundamentally change how cities are built and how society interacts, and the emergence of the technology in a meaningful way on our roads is only a few short years away. Ferren — who co-founded Applied Minds and is the former president of research and development for Walt Disney Imagineering — made the comments during a talk to kick off the TED conference in Vancouver on Tuesday.

Ferren isn’t alone in his enthusiasm for self-driving cars. Tesla’s CTO and co-founder JB Straubel has made similar comments in recent months, telling an audience late last year that the tech will be transformational, inevitable and is already here today. Google(s goog) famously has been working on the technology, but so have car companies like Tesla.

Bran Ferren speaking at Web 2.0, 2005

Bran Ferren speaking at Web 2.0, 2005

Ferren is bullish that autonomous cars are coming soon because much of the technology to enable a switch over to this system is already here. He said there are five things that autonomous cars need:

  1. They need to know where exactly the car is and what time it is. That can be done easily with GPS systems.
  2. They need to know the roads, the rules of the roads and where the car is going. That is already solved by modern web-based mapping technology.
  3. They need to be connected to one another and know the intentions of the other cars. Current wireless networks can do this using databases, software and wireless connections.
  4. The emergence of self-driving cars will happen in a designated area that lawyers and advocates agree will be safe enough. Ferren says this will likely be the HOV lane, and eventually move into the rest of the road.
  5. Finally, self-driving cars need to recognize people, places and objects. Most of the high performance computing that can do this is already around, but it’s not quite good enough yet. Thus, as autonomous vehicles emerge, the car will likely “wake up” the person every once in awhile to help with things like object recognition.

Google self driving car

Ferren is also optimistic about how beneficial autonomous cars will be. He says they will significantly reduce accidents and car-related deaths. They will enable much more efficient driving, lowering carbon emissions and pollution. They will boost productivity by freeing drivers from their commutes. And they will change the way society builds cities, and enables people to interact, as cars and drivers become disconnected and vehicles are used in smarter ways.