Monday, February 27, 2012

The Future of Self-Driving Cars

The horseless carriage has come a long way since its humble beginnings. From the steam powered curiosities of the 1700s to the first truly practical models of the late 1800s until the arrival of Henry Ford and his Model T. This of course was the first mass produced and therefore mass affordable car. From that point on, things quickly began to change.

But what do all these vehicles, including more modern ones from the past fifty years, have in common? Every single one requires a human operator. They won’t go anywhere if there isn’t someone behind the wheel working the pedals.
That is starting to change.

History of Self-Driving Cars

Certainly the idea of a self-driving car has been around for a while. In the 1939 World’s Fair such vehicles were depicted in Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama exhibit. But many decades would pass until serious consideration was given to the idea. For although the desire was there, the technology was not. It wasn’t until the 1980s and 90s that working prototypes started to be built.

Even so, these early prototypes lacked the necessary sophistication to do much more than operate on straight and empty stretches of road. This of course is an essentially useless skill in the real world. For a self-driving car to truly be useful, it needs to be able to do many things.

A self-driving car must be aware of its surroundings to a very precise degree. Whether that means knowing where all the surrounding vehicles are and what speed and direction they are heading, or being aware of pedestrians that might cross its path, or being able to distinguish a child running in front of it from a wind blow plastic bag, there is no room for error. In addition, it must also understand the laws of the road as well as knowing how to get to where you want it to go.

Does all this seem very futuristic to you? You may be surprised to know that the technology required for these tasks is already largely here.

While it’s true that refinements are always being made, cars that drive just as well as, and in fact even better than the best human drivers have been on real city streets and highways for a while. Although this has been limited to just a few prototypes being tested by companies such as Google, these prototypes have still managed to perform flawlessly. Google recently announced that one of their autonomous vehicles has passed the 200,000 mile mark. This feat was achieved on highways and city streets-- roads that are shared by human drivers and pedestrians and all the unexpected events that normally occur while driving a car. Amazingly, all of this was accomplished without a single accident.

Adoption of Self-Driving Cars

There are certain obstacles that still remain, before self-driving cars become commonplace. Consider the legal challenge. For instance, thus far Nevada is the only state that has passed legislation allowing self-driving cars on the road. All states and countries will need to pass such legislation before these cars will be allowed within their jurisdictions.

Consider also the human element, namely the average citizen’s desire to have such vehicles. Many people express concern when they think of vehicles weighing hundreds or even thousands of pounds driving around on their own. But carmakers are playing it smart. Rather than implementing drastic changes from one model year to the next, they are transferring control from the driver to the car in incremental steps.

Systems are starting to be incorporated into cars that can detect if a driver is falling asleep, and then through auditory cues (like a loud beeping) inform the driver that he should pull over for a quick nap. At some point this will advance to a system that might pull the car over for you. Then there are lane detection technologies that can alert the driver that he is drifting out of his lane. Ford’s Lane Keeping Assist System uses cameras to keep track of the position of your car relative to the lanes. If you start to drift into another lane without putting on your blinker, it will cause the steering wheel to vibrate. If you still don’t take corrective action, it will give the steering wheel a gentle nudge that will take your car back to the center of your own lane.

If technologies such as these are implemented gradually over the course of a decade or so, each one taking a little more control away from the driver, then by perhaps the mid 2020’s to 2030’s cars will be fully autonomous. And it will be gradual enough that people will be comfortable with it, especially as they become aware of the corresponding drop in traffic accidents and fatalities. Almost 33,000 people died on U.S roads in 2010. This will change with self-driving cars.

Advantages of Self-Driving Cars

After all, cars don’t get tired or drunk or distracted. They also have vastly improved reaction times. Not only will your car be able to brake much faster than you, it will actually be in communication with the cars around it. When the car in front of yours has to brake, before there is any outward indication that this is about to happen, it will already be wirelessly communicating its intention to do so with your car. And with built in heat sensors, such a car will see a child darting out into the street from between two parked cars before he is even visible to you.

There are many other benefits besides safety.
One of the most difficult events in an older person's life is being told that they are too old to drive. Perhaps they can’t see so well anymore or their reaction time has gotten too slow. Without their cars, many of them are forced to stay at home. With significantly less socialization, depression can set in. For an older person, this can end up being deadly. But with a self-driving car, all they would need to be able to do is get into the car and tell it where to go. The car would do the rest. Then during the commute, they could read a book, or take a nap.

Another benefit of self-driving cars will be financial. There are over 2 million tractor trailers currently on American roads. Each and every one of these requires a driver to operate it. These drivers require training ($) and salaries ($$). They also get sick ($), get paid vacation ($), and under current federal guidelines are legally unable to drive more than 11 hours a day before taking a 10 hour break.

Self-driving trucks need none of these things. Without having to pay driver salaries, the shipping of goods-- a major component of cost to virtually any product you can think of-- will be significantly cheaper, thereby reducing the price of just about anything you might ever want to buy. And since the trucks can drive continuously from their starting point to their destination without any breaks, (except perhaps the occasional 5 minute fuel break) products will reach their destination much faster. (And for those skeptics who wonder how a truck will be able to fuel itself, consider that within ten or so years most new vehicles sold will be electric powered rather than gas powered. To charge itself up, a car or truck will simply pull itself into a charging bay, where by using inductive charging technology (which already exists), a plate built into the floor of the bay will wirelessly transmit electricity to the vehicle’s battery.)

A Day in the Life of a Self-Driving Car

Unlike many other technology driven gadgets, self-driving cars are not a nicety—they will actually change your life. Let’s say that you are a working parent. Needless to say, your kids’ schedules rarely coincide with your own. If you work 9-5 and your kids get out of school at 2, unless they can walk home, someone needs to pick them up. And what if they need to go to soccer practice or ballet lessons? These are things that require either your time or your money (to hire someone else to do it). But picture the following day-in the-life-of scenario, which illustrates how big a change a self-driving car can truly have.

8:30 A.M.

You get into your car, which automatically starts and drives you to work. You don’t even need to request a destination as it already knows your schedule. While on your way, rather than having to concentrate on driving, you can do other things. Put on your makeup, shave, watch the morning news on the onboard TV, or get an early start on the day’s work. All in all, this is a more efficient use of your time.

8:50 A.M.

Your car drops you off right in front of your work. You get out and head straight into the office while your car looks around for a parking spot on its own.

2:00 P.M.

The car is already waiting at your children’s school. Your two kids, let’s say 14 year old Tommy and 12 year old Sue, pile into the car. The car heads off for Tommy’s soccer practice and drops him off. Then, it heads directly home with Sue since it knows that she only has ballet on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There is no way for the kids to have the car take them anywhere else as the on-board computer knows to only accept commands from you. (Unless there is an emergency. If the car’s occupants press the emergency medical override, the car can immediately drive to the nearest hospital, and in fact send a notification of your imminent arrival along with a full description of the car so that doctors will know what vehicle to look for.)

But what if Tommy’s soccer practice was cancelled that day? No problem. When Tommy finds out that his practice is cancelled he gives you a call. You use your computer or smart phone to access the cars internet-enabled computer over a password protected and secure channel. You feed it new, one time instructions to take Tommy home with Sue instead of to practice.

You no longer need to leave the office early just because your kids have different schedules from you. And when you’re ready to leave work, your car is waiting right in front of the building for you. Your own private chauffer ready to take you home, or to wherever else you might want to go.

Letting Your Car Drive You Off Into the Sunset

You’ve just experienced some of the major advantages that self-driving cars will bring to society, and what you’ve seen is far from a complete list. And of course future refinements will continue to bring new benefits that can’t even be dreamt of today.
And who knows-- some time in the not so distant future, you might find yourself doing that dreaming. Perhaps while you’re behind the wheel of your car. But don’t worry; your car can handle it.

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