Self-driv­ing cars are here

Daily Trust - - IT WORLD - with Prof. Fo­luso Ladeinde State Univer­sity of New York, Stony Brook, USA fo­luso.ladeinde@gmail.com

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.

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