Not too long ago, the concept of driverless cars was only a dream, or the sort of thing movies are made of. But in the past few years, this dream has been getting closer to reality.
Driverless cars are not exactly a new concept; they have been long in the making and were spearheaded by General Motor’s 1939 exhibit called ‘Futurama’ which was showcased at New York World’s Fair, effectively laying the groundwork for what would be today’s autonomous vehicles.
Since then, many driverless car concepts have been tried out various times, but they all happen to fall short of technical expectations. It is only recently, due to advancements in technology, that self-driving cars have been able to overcome their three main engineering challenges: sensing the immediate environment, processing the information, and reacting accordingly.
These advances have made the reality of driverless cars even more real and closer than ever.
There is almost daily news of new developments in the search for the perfect driverless car. Virtually every self-respecting car manufacturer, car sharing service and even tech companies such as Apple and Google have caught the self-driving car bug. In fact, Google has plans to see their self-driving car sharing service on the road before the end of 2018, while Apple’s self-driving car can be seen on several occasions driving down the road carrying self-driving equipment. Even top car sharing company Uber has revealed that it is in talks with Google to see about adding Google’s self-driving car (Waymo) to their fleet of car sharing, self-driving vehicles.
Even though the development of self-driving vehicles is still plagued by challenges, the future appears bright, and it is expected that 2035 will see fully functional self-driving cars on the road, creating an industry that will be worth billions.
What are driverless cars?
Driverless cars, also known as autonomous cars or self-driving cars, are cars that are capable of driving to a destination, avoiding obstacles and parking successfully without the aid of a driver.
Simply put, this car must have the capability to perform every function related to everyday driving including commuting and parking. To accomplish this, a driverless car makes use of artificial intelligence (AI) to sense its immediate surroundings, process information from what it senses that allows it to avoid collision, use GPS to determine the car’s current location and where it is supposed to go to and perform driving-related activities such as steering and braking when needed.
Even though the concept of driverless cars has been talked about for quite some time, the idea of sitting in a car and being driven by a computer is sure to make a lot of people nervous, but, for what it’s worth, some level of this technology already exists in today’s more modern cars – such as adaptive cruise control, self adjusting speed control, blind spot warnings, lane management systems, self parking assist and much more.
So, while we are not exactly using driverless cars now, it is safe to say that a huge part of today’s driving experience is actually controlled by an onboard computer.
It is important to point out that even though the terms driverless cars and autonomous cars are currently used interchangeably, there is a subtle difference in their technical meanings. An autonomous car is one that has enough technology to allow it drive on the highway without human assistance, whereas a driverless car is one that does not even need a steering wheel suitable for human drivers.
How does a driverless car work?
A complete driverless car has to have the capacity to obey road rules, respond in a timely manner to road situations and drive safely all the time. To accomplish this, driverless cars make use of a series of built-in systems that are tasked with constantly analyzing the immediate surroundings and interpreting the results to determine the next course of action. The exact technology differs by manufacturer, but the key components are basically the same.
- GPS – GPS is already a common technology. The GPS technology in driverless cars is no different from the ones available in phone apps; only better developed; and they essentially serve the same purpose – to tell the car where you want to go so the car can drive you there.
- Detection system – In order for the car to plot its destination and prepare for road situations, a self-driving car works with a very advanced detection system. This is usually made up of LIDAR (light detection radar) used to measure the distance between any surrounding objects and the car, radar, and cameras. So far, only Elon Musk’s Tesla Model 3 makes use of only radar and camera, no LIDAR. This may be due in part to the first ever driverless car fatality caused by a LIDAR error in a Tesla Model S, where the device misidentified a parked white truck as part of the grey environment and so didn’t hit the brakes.
- Onboard computers – Cars have had onboard computers for quite a while now but the ones on driverless cars are of a more sophisticated variety. Such a computer is needed to analyze and interpret the data gathered from the car’s detection system and determining the correct course of action, as well as controlling other aspects of the car not connected to the detection system.
How safe are driverless cars?
First of all, the technology behind driverless cars is still undergoing a lot of development. This means that there are still a lot of issues to be sorted out. Already, there have been several accidents during testing, including one that resulted in a fatality, but some of these accidents were a result of driver error.
That being said, several driverless car makers, including Google, are programming their cars not to take any form of action such as accelerating, braking or changing lanes unless there is a hundred percent certainty that the action is safe and will not result in an accident.
In theory, this ensures a safe and secure drive as long as the onboard electronics, computer and sensors all work as intended, and also as long as there is no unpredictable action by other road users. This emphasizes, rather than negates, the position of adequate car insurance to cover for any liability, even though insurance premiums might drop significantly once these cars have been proven to be beyond any doubt safer than manned vehicles.
What are the advantages of driverless cars?
The biggest and most obvious advantage of driverless cars is safety. This safety advantage is emphasized by the following points:
- Faster reaction times: A driverless car has the advantage of being able to react faster than any human driver would. In less than it takes to blink an eye, a driverless car can identify a potential hazard and take action accordingly.
- Smarter decisions making: A human driver may not be able to analyze and make a decision in the split second it takes an accident to occur. Driverless cars, on the other hand, make use of extremely fast computers to analyze road situations and decide on the best possible move.
- More efficient drivers: A huge percentage of road accidents can be traced to driver error. Everything from fatigue to drunk driving and ignoring road rules can cause a fatal accident. Computers don’t have these problems. Not only do they obey traffic laws and warning signs, they are also not capable of the excitement and emotion associated with road rages, car races and other forms of bad driving that cause accidents.
Another advantage of driverless cars is efficiency. Driverless cars will be able to provide better fuel efficiency, better road efficiency and better time management. The usual chaos that normally occurs as a result of hundreds of drivers on the same road, ignoring safety rules, not maintaining consistent speed and not allowing for the proper flow of traffic will be eliminated.
Better for disabled people –
Driverless cars bring a whole new opportunity for freedom to people who have movement-restricting disabilities such as the blind or those otherwise unable to drive. Because the car is essentially doing the driving, these individuals will be able to move about more freely without having to depend on someone all the time.
Driverless cars will also provide an advantage to the elderly who no longer have the speed and reflexes needed to drive safely on the crowded highways.
The advantages of driverless cars are too numerous to fully cover here but suffice it to say that it will change the landscape of the automobile industry the world over.
What are the disadvantages of driverless cars?
No matter how good a thing is, there is always a flipside, and the advent of driverless cars is no exception. First of all, any technological advancement is bound to have an economic impact and driverless cars will too. This is because most of the driving jobs done by humans such as truck driving, taxis and chauffeuring will be taken over by AI.
Here are some of the adverse effects driverless cars are bound to have:
- Economic impact due to job losses
- High cost of cars due to high tech features
- Legal and ethical difficulties
- Human error
As you can see, there is still a long way to go before driverless cars become available to the public. All we can do as we wait is simply envisage the feeling of moving about in a car that drives itself.