They’re Here! What You Need to Know About Self Driving Cars
By: Good2GoPublished: August 18, 2014
Self-driving cars are here
The future of car technology and safety is finally here – and it’s stirring up quite a buzz. Self-driving cars or autonomous cars may be hitting the roads in a few short years, exciting many drivers about this latest technological move in the auto industry. But there’s a lot more to this story than just “Look, Ma! No hands!” Here’s what you need to know about self-driving cars.
What are self-driving/autonomous cars?
Autonomous cars have actually been in development for almost a century – dating back to the 1920s in New York City where the first driverless car, the “linrrican Wonder” was controlled via radio transmission. For a complete history of autonomous vehicles, click here.
An autonomous car – in short – is a computer-controlled vehicle that can drive itself without the need of a human occupant or driver. It can sense its environment and navigate roads without human input. Today, these robotic cars exist mainly as prototypes and demonstration systems, but manufacturers are getting closer to creating fleets of self-driving cars for the general public.
How do self-driving cars work?
Autonomous vehicles use radar, lidar, computer vision and GPS to sense and navigate through their surroundings. Advanced control systems can also interpret sensory information to navigate around obstacles and identify relevant signage.
The National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has outlined what they believe to be varying levels of vehicle automation, or how much control is handed over to the vehicle vs. the driver to help better define how these cars should function:
No-Automation (Level 0): The driver is in complete and sole control of the vehicle – brake, steering, throttle, and motive power – at all times.
Function-Specific Automation (Level 1): Automation at this level involves one or more specific control functions. Examples include: electronic stability control or pre-charged brakes.
Combined Function Automation (Level 2): This level involves automation of at least two primary control functions designed to work together to relieve the driver of control of those functions, such as adaptive cruise control in combination with lane centering.
Limited Self-Driving Automation (Level 3): This level enables the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain road conditions and to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes in those conditions. The driver is expected to be available for occasional control takeover, with enough transition time to do so. A good example of a Level 3 vehicle is the Google Car.
Watch the Google self-driving car in action:
Full Self-Driving Automation (Level 4): The vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor road conditions for an entire trip. The driver is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip.
Here’s another look at the Google self-driving car project sans steering wheel, gas pedal and brake:
The companies building self-driving cars
While the Google Car Project has gained a lot of attention in the U.S. for the last few years, countries around the world have also been experimenting with autonomous vehicles such as China, Israel, Korea, the UK and a number of other European countries including Germany, Sweden, Italy and Spain.
Some research companies, universities, and auto manufacturers that have tossed their hat in the ring for vehicle automation technology are:
- General Motors
- Continental Automotive Systems
- Autoliv Inc.
- Vislab (University of Parma)
- Oxford University
Regulations and legislation for self-driving cars
As of 2013, four U.S. states have passed laws permitting the testing and operation of autonomous cars: California, Florida, Michigan, and Nevada. Washington D.C. has also enacted laws for autonomous vehicles.
Policymakers and regulators have argued that new laws will be required if driverless vehicles are to become a reality throughout the U.S. The challenge for regulators is that the technology is moving too fast for laws to be put in place in time. In addition, there are a number of legal questions that need answering to ease their worries like who is liable for damages in a car crash with a self-driving car, how can a computer choose whether or not to hit an animal in the road, and what if the computer controlling the car becomes hacked or crashes mid-drive.
This is the difficult task that both sides of the debate will have to face and it can take decades for a resolution.
What’s next for self-driving cars?
Despite the regulatory hoopla, it is estimated that within the next 20 years or so, self-driving vehicles will be operated completely independent from the driver. It is also predicted that roads will become safer, traffic flow will improve, drivers will incur fewer injuries and impaired driving laws will be a thing of the past.
The next question is once these vehicles go to market, will you be able to afford them? Not anytime soon. In the Google Car video above featuring a Toyota Prius, this tricked-out vehicle costs $320,000 with all the bells and whistles. Considering that the average American spends $30,000 on a new car, a self-driving car may not be in your driveway for quite some time.
What are your thoughts on self-driving cars? Would you ever consider owning one if they were more affordable? Tell us in the comments below.
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