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May 20 2014

Auto Technology: Autonomous Driving

There are many emotions us humans bear, such as excitement, fear, confusion, amusement, pride, stress and so on. For many of us, when we think about cars that one day will drive completely on their own, all of the above emotional chords are struck.

In previous articles of our auto technology series, vehicle safety alerts and assistance have been the primary focus. If you can recall, some of these features have a means of intervention, like automatic braking, lane keeping, and blind spot detection --to name a few. In last week's blog we even discussed cars that can park themselves. However, in all of these scenarios a driver still needs to be present and participating to a degree.

Auto manufactures are currently working on vehicles that can function completely on their own. If this concept doesn't phase you the slightest bit, you may want to check your pulse! In this article, we've

The Self-Driving Car

The idea of a car that can drive itself has been around for quite some time now. As a matter of fact, the first self-driving technology dates all the way back to the 1920's. Though far less advanced or effective, the "linrrican Wonder" was able to drive on its own with the help of a second car close behind that sent out radio impulses to its antennae. Chandler Motor Company didn't end up using this technology other than to experiment. The time has now arrived almost 100 years later. 


Though autonomous driving may still seem like a future concept, it's not too far away. Google has already petitioned and been granted laws as of 2013 making self-driving vehicles street legal in the states of Nevada, Florida, California and Michigan. With over 1 million miles of autonomous test driving experience on public roads --about 10k miles per/wk-- and no accidents in connection to the autonomous feature, this technology appears to be a viable option. Keep up to date with Google's self-driving car monthly reports here.

If you've read the previous blogs of this series about some of the semi-autonomous safety features available, than you probably have a good idea of how these driverless cars operate. Technologies such as automatic braking, lane keeping, adaptive cruise control, and blind spot detection all contribute to this fully autonomous vehicle soon to be available for the public. The use of laser radar (lidar), sensors, and camera data allow for the vehicles to carry out all functions of driving and parking.

As of now, it is required by law that these driverless equipped cars still have a driver and passenger in attendance for testing, thus making them automated and not quite autonomous. Similar to cruise control, the driver can intervene if necessary. When the day comes that fully autonomous vehicles are on the road, will it be completely safe?   

Safe or unsafe?

How will autonomous vehicles fit in with all the variables contributing to the art of driving? As you know, there's so much more to driving than the basic fundamentals of pressing the gas and brake pedals, staying within the painted lines and navigating to your next destination. Safe driving requires an awareness of your surroundings and an ability to adapt or react to each circumstance that presents itself.  

1. Diversity of drivers

There are a substantial amount of drivers in the world. With such a large number of drivers, there's quite a bit of diversity in the level of experience and skills they possess, as well as their style of driving. Some are more aggressive and determined, while others struggle to focus. Conflicting driving habits are bound to result in errors. Given that we don't all have our own personal roads, these human errors will need to be compensated for by the awareness of surrounding drivers.

A friend once told me that his approach of driving was to imagine his car as a potential target to all surrounding vehicles. Though that may seem a little extreme, the practice of defensive driving is a necessity. Will autonomous vehicles be able to compensate for human errors? How quick can the sensors react to instances like a driver cutting them off or forcing their way into traffic and will the best decision be made for the situation? Slamming on the brakes may not be the right solution if there's room to steer around or switch lanes.

Though imperfect, an experienced and attentive driver may very well be able to react to an unexpected error better than a computerized vehicle.


2. Inclement weather

Car_driving_in_snowThe issues that come with such a diverse group of drivers are not the only obstacles autonomous vehicles will need to overcome. On a beautiful day when the sun is shining and the roads are dry, self-driving cars will have no issues. However, when weather conditions are not ideal for most vehicles --namely snow, ice or heavy rainfall-- drivers must be able to adjust to the circumstances. However, will autonomous vehicles be just as capable of adapting to these inclement weather conditions? If the tires were to spin out on slick roads, can they take proper measures to regain control? Roads covered in fresh snow will make registering lanes difficult for the cameras as well.

3. Road obstacles

In Massachusetts, the roads are constantly undergoing construction as a result of wear and tear from plowing and road salt, or highway additions and underground piping replacement. Potholes, faded lines, torn up streets and detours are everywhere. Though that may not be the case in ever city or state, it's still going to be a factor that autonomous vehicles will need to be programmed to handle. 

If not constantly watching for potholes or other well hidden objects, drivers are bound to run into some car issues. In some of the semi-autonomous vehicles, their sensors don't do a great job recognizing smaller obstacles, such as potholes and tree branches, which could result in some of the same issues as an unalert driver.

Similar to the lack of lane visibility from snow, it's also very important that all the painted lines on the road are touched up regularly to avoid excessive fading. The cameras of an autonomous vehicle rely heavily on the lines for lane-keeping. The upkeep of road lines may not be an issue everywhere, but where it is, there could be some issues for the autonomous car.

Keeping up with road conditions will be significantly more important for safety when autonomous vehicles are made available for purchase.

4. Technology malfunctions

Last but certainly not least, as mentioned in our article about the potential demise of side view mirrors, technology fails us!

Unless you're still living in the dark ages, you can probably recall a time where technology has failed you in some way, shape or form. Since technology has revolutionized so many parts of our lives, we are generally pretty forgiving when computers make an error. 

A malfunction in an autonomous vehicle could be a matter or life or death. Though not a very fluffy topic, it's certainly something we need to be aware of. If for some reason one of the functions, such as the power steering or automatic braking cease to work, there could be some serious impact depending on the situation. In the off chance that this happens, hopefully the setting will be on an open road in the suburbs and not the railroad tracks of a densely populated city.  

The next generation of drivers... or passengers

autonomous driving sleeping at the wheel

Although it's quite evident that there are many concerns regarding autonomous vehicles, there are also several benefits they bring to the table. Assuming that all the autonomous vehicle kinks are ironed out, there could potentially be less collisions with a better set of eyes, less traffic backups with better management of traffic flow, more efficient parking, and consistently awake and sober drivers. 

Over the next few years we should expect to see great strides towards nearly autonomous vehicles. On the radar --pun intended-- a few different vehicles from Mercedes and Mobileye users will be equipped with hands-free highway driving, and vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V) will be mandatory by 2017 (deadline date not set).    

According to an article from the USA News, fully autonomous vehicles will be available on market some time in the 2020s. That could mean that there will be no need for license retesting or any testing for that matter! Provided these vehicles don't all cost over six figures, there will be many excited potential consumers on the market. For those that can't afford to experience their own autonomous vehicle, there has been talk about autonomous public transportation as well. 

Please share your thoughts about autonomous vehicles in the comments section below! Are you ready to embrace them with open arms or would prefer to drive yourself?

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Photo Credits: Ali Eminov, slworking2, David Castillo Dominici

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