Modern technology is advancing to the point where it could soon reach its peak. With this progress has come a myriad of inventions that seek to make our lives ever more sophisticated. When applied to automobiles, the results can be amazing. What’s on experts’ minds right now is whether our advanced technology can give rise to properly functioning driverless cars. The concept may seem alien but automakers are already producing prototypes of vehicles that can operate without total human interference. For instance, Nevada’s highways were recently allowed to be used as a testing ground for autonomous vehicles. Google has jumped at the chance after receiving a patent for its system last year. The system can be installed in any vehicle with the use of mapping technology and other high-tech components.
Autonomous cars still, however, need the assistance of in-car operators. Once they can rely on just one person to manipulate a few of the controls, then it won’t be long before fully autonomous vehicles can hit the streets. If the bugs can be ironed out, then driverless cars may offer people a higher level of safety. Human error accounts for a very large number of road accidents owing to so many variables. As such, the technology could help to curb the odds of getting into mishaps. Another benefit of these futuristic vehicles is that physically handicapped people will be able to commute without fear of not being able to safely control their cars.
Tom Jacobs of the Nevada DMV seems optimistic that the technology will go a long way in ensuring that autonomous vehicles increase safety standards to make driving a truly enjoyable experience. He had the privilege of riding in a driverless car and said that the test trip was so smooth he couldn’t make out the difference when the driver or the car was operating the vehicle.
1. Google's Driverless Car
Google’s driverless car technology could very well pave the way for future autonomous cars. A couple of years ago, the popular technology company claimed to have tested its system on 7 vehicles and over 1,40,000 road miles. The test cars, consisting of an Audi TT and six Toyota Prius hybrids, were fitted with the technology that makes use of radar, video cams, GPS and lasers. The modified cars were equipped with a rotating sensor that could ‘see’ 360 degrees for a 200 feet distance. A sensor creates a three dimensional map of the vehicle’s location which is fed to another sensor on the left wheel of the test car. A video camera installed on the windshield scouts for obstacles, pedestrians and traffic lights and sends the information to the vehicle’s in-car computer. Radar sensors on the front and back further aid in locating obstacles while a GPS receiver, an inertial motion sensor and a laser range finder do the rest.
According to Google, the technology helped the test cars navigate over challenging terrain like the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco’s Lombard Street and around Lake Tahoe. With a trained driver and software operator keeping an eye on the proceedings, the driverless technology could very well be what we’ve been waiting for.
2. Dennis Hong’s Driverless Car
Along the lines of Google’s technology, others have also been busy developing their own systems that enable cars to maneuver on their own. Dennis Hong, a mechanical engineering expert at Virginia Tech, and his team developed a prototype driverless vehicle to be showcased at the DARPA Urban challenge. The aim was to construct a car for those who face challenges driving on their own, namely, elderly folk and handicapped people. The car can be programmed to travel to a certain destination and requires only minimal assistance from the drivers. Robotic technology developer, TORC, also took the help of Hong for NFB Blind Driver Challenge, a competition that showcases blind drivable vehicles. The result was a prototype dune buggy that used sensing and perception data for the visually impaired to interact through non-visual interfaces like vibrating gloves to relay info about steering, another vibration device for speed information and a system that makes use of compressed airflow patterns to generate tactile images.
3. Free University Driverless Car
Researchers from Berlin’s Free University developed a prototype driverless vehicle that was tested on the streets of the capital city. The hands-free Volkswagen Passat car operated using a high-tech system of sat nav, electronics, a computer, laser scanners and a camera. Like those developed by Google and Dennis Hong, their technology could make out obstacles, pedestrians and trees and react to traffic lights. According to Raul Rojas, the university’s head of the artificial intelligence research group, the car reacted quicker to its surroundings than a human could.
Considering many cars today operate partially using computer-controlled interfaces like emergency and parking assist, the researchers are of the view that such technology could make future driving safer. What could be a problem, however, is the legal issues if an accident were to occur. To whom would the blame be shifted, the car’s owners or the technology’s developers, they said.
4. BMW's new driverless car
German automaker, BMW, has also been testing driverless technology, having already completed a successful trial run of its system. One of its test models managed to navigate and drive around a high speed autobahn between Munich and Nuremberg without using any driver input. The company made use of systems like active cruise control to monitor traffic, sat nav, lane departure warning and rear view cameras. The only time drivers will need to interfere is when the system indicates that a sensor is lost or when it can’t make further calculations.
Despite its virtues, however, BMW has said that its autonomous technology won’t make it to the market till the next decade or so. Till that time comes, it will be busy fine-tuning its system so that it can navigate around obstacles like road works, local road work signs and deal with speed limits and school zones.
Once perfected, driverless technology will greatly aid commuters who can’t safely make it on their own. We’re talking about people too old to drive but who need to commute and those who are visually or physically impaired. Since human error has been responsible for a large number of accidents, autonomous technology could save millions of lives each year. It could also led to more efficient transport systems being developed with synchronized traffic and narrower lanes helping to combat traffic snarls.
What if it went wrong?
Despite the many advantages of driverless systems, things could go drastically wrong owing to technical glitches and malfunctions. Computers may be known to react faster and more intelligently than the human mind, but they’re still electronic gadgets that depend on precise functioning to work properly. If anything were to go wrong, it could lead to disaster. As such, if autonomous driving were to become a reality, there would need to be detailed analyses done as well as factoring all the variables that could lead to malfunctions.