Self-driving cars are here
One cool thing about the United States (U.S.) is the way that folks try to turn Hollywood-inspired science fiction into real-life situations. If you are an observing person, you’ll see that many of the far-out gadgets of today are products of yesterday’s fantasy that were played out in Hollywood movies. For the longest time, we have driven conventional cars; it is high time we allowed cars to drive us. Yes, you just sit in the car, tell the car where you want to go, sit back, relax, and let the car take you there. This is obviously one way we are stepping into the future. Thank goodness, there is now a lot of this kind of cars, at least in the U.S., even if the technology has not yet been perfected and traffic regulations can’t catch up.
You can call them autonomous cars, computer-driven cars, self-driving cars, or driverless cars; they all refer to the same thing: cars that don’t need a person to drive them. In my ancient ancestral village in Nigeria, people would probably associate this with witchcraft, voodoo, or the work of evil people! In America, you’ll call it high technology, which moves human civilization forward.we
It is important to be aware of where it all started from: Silicon Valley, that is; which is also where the concentration of the world’s computer and Internet high technology companies is found - and from where the likes of Apple, Google, Intel, HP, Facebook, etc. sprang up. In particular, Google is in a pioneering position on self-driving cars, and is at the forefront of their development. Note that Google does not build cars per se, but it has incorporated autonomous technology into Toyota Priuses and the new Lexus. Not to be left behind, virtually all major car manufacturers on the planet are now developing their own versions of self-driving cars: fifteen companies, including General Motors, Hyundai, Honda, BMW, Mercedes Benz, Volvo, Audi, Ford, and Tesla Motors. Last week, the Tesla Model S, which is already a high-tech electric car, was endowed with autopilot capabilities, which is a semiautonomous feature that allows hands-free and pedal-free driving on the highway under certain conditions. The car changes lanes autonomously and uses sensors to scan the road in all directions and adjust the brakes, steering, and throttle. Tesla Model S is the first production vehicle, available to consumers, that has advanced selfdriving capabilities. The autonomous vehicle drives at 70 miles per hour along twisty highways
So, the next time you see a car, especially Tesla Model S, cruising next to you on the highway, watch carefully, the car may be driving itself. Google’s self-driving cars have logged more than one million miles on public roads in the U.S.
Google and the de-facto auto manufacturers are coming to this new technology from different directions. Without its own cars, will Google be able to compete with auto manufacturers on this new technology? On the other hand, without Google’s software and data management experience, which is what is being heavily leveraged in developing driverless cars, can the car manufacturers compete with Google? The auto manufacturer sees selfdriving cars as more about incremental (evolutionary) development, rather than revolutionary one. Google probably sees it differently.
Regarding the technology itself, it’s about lasers, sensors, actuators, computers, adaptive cruise control (which uses radar and causes a car to automatically adapt its speed when traffic conditions warrant). Radars measure distance to the car ahead in order to maintain a legally-required interval. Cameras are used in lanekeeping systems and for recognizing lane dividers on the road. (Driverless cars require lane markings.) Specialized sensors called digital encoders, which have been used for years in antilock brakes and in systems for stabilizing a car, precisely measure wheel rotation. Accelerometers, which are used in airbag technology to measure changes in speed, also find applications in self-driving cars. Global Positioning Systems (GPSs) give a car’s location in absolute sense and in relation to the positions of neighboring cars. Lidar units, or laser range finders, are used in Google fleet of self-driving cars to provide distance measurements for adaptive cruise control systems. (Lidars combine lasers and radars.) Note that Google’s lidar - which costs approximately $70,000 a unit, consist of 64 infrared lasers that spin inside a housing on top of a car - to take measurements in all horizontal directions.
Are driverless cars a fashion statement, mere display of tech wizardry, or do they have real advantages over conventional cars? Honestly, I am not quite sure yet. There is the claim of fuel savings, but I believe this claim needs to be established more convincingly. It is also claimed that self-driving cars are much safer - crashes, deaths, and injuries are avoided. While this may be potentially true in a city of only smart cars; for now, operating side-by-side with human-driven cars is going to be chaotic for some time. The advantage of “free-up time behind the wheels” is, for now, nebulous, until the anxiety over something going wrong with driverless cars can be overcome. (In its current form, a human driver has to be on standby in case of errant driving situations.)
In terms of the risks and challenges associated with driverless cars, which are indeed very many, most of them have to do with the fact that selfdriving cars play by the book, whereas we humans often don’t.
In conclusion, teaching autonomous cars to drive more aggressively and sometimes disobeying traffic regulations, like humans, or operating them in that futuristic city of lawful human drivers, which perhaps will be one of the world’s planned smart cities; could be the way of the future for smart cars. Well, except if all cars are operated on a driverless mode.