Autonomous Car Technology – What’s Next?

Back in the 80s, Knight Rider had the coolest car ever, Kitt. Besides the posh accent of this talking car, it was also able to drive on its own. Back then, we all simply viewed this at an entertainment level and the concept of your car driving without human intervention was all just sci-fi. But the future is now and this technology is no longer confined to proto-types and is actually in production.

 

Semi-autonomous cars vs. Fully autonomous cars

Before taking a look at some of the history around automated cars, it’s important to understand that there are two distinct categories for these types of cars; semi-autonomous and fully autonomous. Semi-autonomous cars are very similar in form to the cars we know today with all the same controls and they do require some human intervention as well as allow the driver to take over. Fully autonomous cars, on the other hand, simply require a destination and do not require any human intervention and can fully manage themselves. Currently, semi-autonomous vehicles are becoming more and more prevalent, with fully autonomous cars still somewhat in the advanced development and testing phases.

 

History of autonomous vehicles

There is speculation as to when the automating of cars and experiments began, but one of the first recorded events was in the 1920’s. But it was in 1939, at the World’s Fair, that GM planted the seed into the minds of consumers of cars being able to drive on their own. During the 1950s, GM had already started testing various electronic technologies that would, with the help of a wire embedded in a test track, allow a car to steer on its own.

The next major step in the evolution was during the design of lunar rovers in the 60’s and 70’s but it was in 1977 that S. Tsugawa and his team at Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering Lab revealed the first fully autonomous car that utilized computer technology. This car, however, still required assistance of an elevated rail for steering.

 

Then, in 1987, Ernst Dickmanns from Bundeswehr University in Munich made a major breakthrough utilizing imagery and sensors to get a vehicle to drive 90Km/h for almost 20 km’s. Dickmanns next major achievement came in 1994 when he fitted out an S-Class Mercedes Benz with more advanced cameras, imaging and computing capabilities that allowed the car to drive full autonomously in real traffic conditions at speeds of up to 130Km/h.

Over the next decade, as computer processing advanced and their physical size became smaller, combined with enhanced imaging, sensor and GPS technology, various universities, researchers and technologists stretched the limits and made the technology more mainstream.

 

The next evolution

In 2010, Google made public their fleet of autonomous Toyota Prius hybrids which racked up almost a quarter of a million kilometers with virtually no human intervention. Car manufacturers have also embraced the technology with Mercedes, BMW, Volva, Tesla and others releasing their production-ready self-driving cars. Companies such as Apple are also investing and pursuing self-driving technology. There is no indication yet as to whether companies such as Google and Apple will produce their own cars, or simply license their technologies to car manufacturers.

The technology is being adopted at a rapid rate and already a handful of US states are allowing the use of driverless cars. In addition, countries such as the Netherlands and UK are testing the technology for public transport purposes. Estimates are that by 2020, there will be 20 million driverless cars in use globally.

 

Autonomous Vehicles – Pros & Cons

So, the question on many people’s minds is why would I want a driverless car and would I trust a computer to get me to my destination safely? Well, if you are Jay Leno then the answer would be no as he recently commented that he loves to drive cars so much, he wouldn’t want to give that up.

 

Pros:

  • Computers are better drivers than humans as computers stick to the rules. It’s estimated that 80%+ of road accidents are the result of human error. So, not only will self-driving cars reduce the number accidents and road fatalities but the cost savings will be hundreds of billions.
  • Increased availability of time and cost reduction – Drivers will be able to engage in other activities while travelling and can even use this time to be productive.
  • Advanced mapping and traffic reduction – Due to the continuous flow of data and real time traffic monitoring, driverless cars will select the optimal route and travel speed, thereby reducing congestion and ensuring a more consistent traffic flow.
  • People with disabilities, who previously have relied on assistance or specialized vehicles, will be able to utilize the technology to their benefit.
  • Optimized public transport systems that can potentially reduce inner city traffic by providing more regular shuttle and bus services with self-driving capabilities.
  • Easier parking and potential reduction in parking spaces as your car will be able to drop you off and go find parking further away or even return home till you need it again.
  • Reduction in fuel consumption and emissions as car will ensure optimal driving for the most efficient fuel consumption.

 

Cons

  • Cost is currently one of the barriers to entry as the technology is still expensive but over time, this will come down and be affordable to the man on the street.
  • Security concerns such as hacking. Because self-driving cars are operated by computers and rely on being connected to the Internet and networks, the potential for hacking of these systems exists. Jeep recently had to release security patches on some of their technology to combat this.
  • Potential increase in unemployment as many jobs such as taxi drivers and freight companies will replace real drivers with driverless technologies.
  • Legal implications as laws will need to be adapted on where liability lies in the event of accidents occurring. Other related legalities are how driverless cars will deal with differing roads laws from state to state and country to country.
  • Safety concerns in adverse weather conditions. The current technology relies heavily on cameras, sensors and imaging that may be hampered by heavy rain, snow or fog.

 

Where to from here?

It’s clear that automated vehicles are the way of the future but as to when and how the technology and challenges will be fully ready and affordable, is still debatable. While various polls show that the majority of people will embrace autonomous car technology, the question is will the current “old school” drivers really relinquish control to a computer?

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