What’s the deal with….Driverless Cars

In this ‘What’s the deal with’ segment, we give you a bit of history behind driverless cars, some of the big issues surrounding them and what we can expect to see in the future.

There is no denying that driverless cars are going to have a major impact on the way we live. Think about how disruptive the invention of various transport has been… cars, airplanes, trains, they all introduced massive change in to the way we live by disrupting how we connect with people and things.

Driverless cars (or should we say autonomous vehicles) will have the same major impact on the way we connect with the world around us. But before we get into that, let’s have a look at the history of driverless cars, the technology behind it and some of the key issues it has to face.

History of driverless cars

Driverless cars has been a dream ever since the early 1900’s with the following quote found in ‘The Living Machine’ by David H Keller, Wonder Stories, 1935.

“Old people began to cross the continent in their own cars. Young people found the driverless car admirable for petting. The blind for the first time were safe. Parents found they could more safely send their children to school in the new car than in the old cars with a chauffeur.”

Then, at the 1939 World’s Fair, Norman Bel Gedde’s Futurama exhibit sponsored by General Motors depicted radio controlled electric cars propelled via electromagnetic fields provided by circuits embedded in the roadway.

Throughout the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, the idea of driverless cars continued with lots of research being undertaken  but very much focused on hidden tracks and cables guiding the vehicles.

It was only in the 80’s that true ‘sensor based’ automation was starting to be unravelled with further research into lidar and computer vision.

Since the 80’s, further investment in sensor technology and computer based control has resulted in some of the first driverless vehicles. Moving into the 2000’s, big investments from the likes of Google sparked public interest which nudged a lot of car manufacturers to start taking driverless cars more seriously as the future of their industry.

The technology behind the scenes

The key technology behind driverless cars comes down to sensors to monitor the environment around the car. Currently, the favourite for this is a system called Lidar. Lidar works like radar and sonar but is extremely accurate. It maps points in space using 64 rotating laser beams taking more than a million measurements per second to form a 3D model that is accurate to the centimetre.

Alongside this, GPS and preloaded maps helps to tell the system where stationary things are such as traffic lights and telephone poles.

With all the sensors, GPS and map data, a huge amount of processing needs to take place to understand what is happening around the car itself.

What’s holding them back?

All the technology sounds great and if the world was full of stationary items then driverless cars probably would have been here a while ago. However, the big issue for driverless cars is processing the non stationary items. This could be people in the road, animals or  non automated cars. All the things that don’t have a set path and need to be analysed constantly in real time to determine how it might affect the route of the driverless car.

Technology aside, as with any major technological change, the big barriers are culture and people. There is a concern that with no person in control who is liable for any problems? If your driverless car hits a person, who is liable for this? Is it yourself? Is it the car manufacturer?

What potential impact will they have?

Even with the barriers currently in place, driverless cars will eventually hit our roads and once they do, the real culture change will begin to happen.

Taxi, bus and delivery companies will find themselves either adopting driverless cars or going bust. This will result in mass unemployment which in itself will cause issues.

With automated cars, the question will start to surface whether you need to own a car at all. What if I could book one in a similar way to an Uber to get me from A to B. Why spend so much on a car when I can pay a fraction on a trip by trip basis. This could result in the cost of car ownership and insurance decreasing leaving people with more money in their pockets.

Privacy and hacking also needs to be considered. With so many terrorist attacks in recent years using vehicles, a self driving  vehicle could be incredibly dangerous.

Looking at the positive side, it will bring transport to those who can’t (or shouldn’t) be driving such as the blind and the elderly. Equally, after indulging in some alcohol, a driverless car will be very useful for getting people home safe and sound.

From a safety point of view, automated vehicles will continue to learn from every journey they take and will wipe out one of the main causes of traffic collisions, human error.

Perhaps even the way our roads are built will be changed in the future to accommodate driverless cars. Speed limits may be revisited and traffic congestion would reduce

When can we expect to see them?

Legislation is slowly adapting to driverless cars and as more companies get involved the technology continues to improve.

However, we still have some way to go. What we will start to see is a gradual increase in automated car functionality moving from drive assistance (think auto braking, keeping car in lane etc) to conditional automation (car flagging that human driver is needed), to full automation where a human driver is not needed.

For drive assistance, it’s already here for more expensive vehicles but this will gradually trickle down to cheaper ones.

When we’re talking about full automation we’re probably looking at around ten years away but expect new automated features in cars to increase dramatically in the next few years.

The ten year figure for full automation is still an estimate and this could change dramatically in the years to come (we’re already seeing Level 4 autonomy!), but no matter when it arrives, it’s safe to say that the impact it has on how we interact with the world will be life changing for all involved.

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