An Automated Future Part II: Driverless Cars
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Instead of gripping your steering wheel in frustration during rush hour, imagine a more peaceful commute with absolutely no effort on your end. Picture a self-driving vehicle capable of preventing collisions and accidents, ultimately leading to safer driving conditions. Although this may seem like a far-off fantasy, Google is working tirelessly to perfect an autonomous car that would make this a reality. Google states that driverless cars will be seen as early as 2018, and although many are skeptical, the advancements in technology and changing legislations support their efforts. It is no longer a question of IF driverless cars will become a reality, but rather WHEN.
Two major technological advances have led to the creation of driverless cars– Lidar and Computer Vision. Lidar, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, is possibly one of the most integral and expensive pieces of equipment seen on driverless cars. Lidar uses bursts of lasers to measure and map the distance between the car and objects in its path. Essentially, Lidar provides a lay of the land by recognizing objects such as parked cars or obstructions in your blind spot (Digital Trends).
Computer Vision serves as the eyes of the car. While Lidar notices objects in its path, computer vision uses cameras to allow the car to ‘see’ the 360 degrees around it. Computer vision recognizes cyclists in your blind spot, or railroad crossings ahead and allows the car to properly respond to these obstructions.
Autonomous vehicles could virtually eliminate human error and decrease the number of accidents drastically. These vehicles know when the car in front of you is likely to brake and take action to avoid collision. Likewise, they sense when another car is moving into your lane and automatically swerve out of the way. Experts have even taken cyclists into account. They have spent over 10,000 miles interacting with cyclists on the road, studying their behavior patterns and implementing ways to diminish accidents (USA Today).
Safety is a top priority for manufacturers of these cars. For instance, Google cars have logged over 700,000 miles on California roads thus far. Only two minor incidents have occurred and Google claims both ensued when the vehicles were being manually controlled and the driverless function was turned off (Washington Post).
While huge advances have been made, autonomous vehicle technology is still not perfect. Many issues need to be addressed before these cars, and perhaps eventually trucks, become a reality. For starters, there are issues with the four-way stop, as automated cars do not inch into the intersection as drivers do. They have had very little exposure to cities, where driving is more difficult due to unexpected obstacles such as one-way streets. Furthermore, Google cars still require a licensed driver to operate the car in tight spots, and although the driver is notified when they need to take over, this is a problem if the car does not give drivers enough time to react. Drivers could be asleep, reading, on the phone, or otherwise distracted and unable to respond quickly to the cars signal.
This issue has led google to create a new prototype in which the driver is cut out completely. There are no steering wheels, no brakes, no gas pedals - only an on and off button and an emergency stop. While this current prototype has only reached a top speed of 25 mph, Google’s vision of creating a fleet of these vehicles could drastically change our infrastructure (NY Times). Imagine summoning a car on your smart phone, waiting a mere minute, taking it to work, and allowing it to roam around all day ferrying other people around. Cars would no longer sit idly in parking garages, you wouldn’t need to own your own, and the omnipresent issue of finding parking in a large city would be solved.
California, Florida, Michigan, and Nevada have all passed legislation regarding driverless cars, bringing us that much closer to their official usage. Although driverless vehicles are not yet a reality, soon millions will be clamoring for a car that finally allows them to avoid dangerous accidents and relieve some of the boredom associated with commutes and traffic jams.