The autonomous car is a recurring theme in many big screen blockbusters. You would be forgiven for thinking it is something that belongs in a science fiction film, something that might be possible in the future. However, they will be a reality far sooner than that. In 2014, Google held its first ever media event for their version of a car which can drive itself. There were a variety of presentations but perhaps the most poignant was the opening one by project director Chris Urmson: there are 1.2 million deaths every year worldwide due to car crashes. 33,000 of these were in America and the majority of crashes are caused by human error.
In order for a self driving car to successfully work the following four questions need to be continually answered:
- Where is the car and where is it heading?
- What other vehicles, people and obstacles are near it?
- What might any of these items near the car do in the next few moments?
- What options does the car have
The answer is through a complex array of sensors, lasers, radar and cameras. The information from these sensors will provide an accurate 3D picture of the world surrounding the vehicle.
Surprisingly, there is little evidence inside the car that you are in anything but a regular vehicle. In the front there is space for two people; the driver who can take over the functions of the car at any time and a co-driver. The driver sees everything as the car sees it – this means color coded marks to show the different types of vehicles and pedestrians near the vehicle. The co-driver has a laptop connected to the car and has a much more detailed view of what the car sees. The back seats house two people fairly comfortably.
Does it work?
Google has a fleet of self driving cars and to date none of them have caused a collision. Between the fleet vehicles they have covered 700,000 miles with the only incidents being when the car has been hit by a human driven vehicle. The cars are programmed to be extremely cautious and will never attempt to drive beyond their limits.
Does the car stand out?
The car might look a little out of place in a line up of sports cars but it would slot right in with the hybrid crowd. It does have a large laser device on the roof but no other visible signs of what it is. At a first glimpse, we can say that Google’s newest model of a self driving car looks peculiar. It’s not a luxuriously-looking sedan, but it does what it is supposed to do – drive on its own.
On a road near you
These cars only work where Google has created an incredibly detailed road map – this includes roads, traffic lights, stop signs and anything else the car might need to know. They are remarkable but it would be a huge task to map every road in the country or world to this level – and then keep them up to date.
There are still a few bugs to be ironed out. The car drives more roughly than the average human. It drives as though it is analyzing and adjusting every tiny little step – which in reality it is. These levels of analysis results in many tiny unnecessary adjustments which can make the car appear almost human at times.
The technology of the future
There is no doubt that this will be the way to travel in the future. Google is not the only company working on autonomous car technology. The pleasure in going somewhere in one of these types of vehicles is that traffic jams will no longer be an issue. Whilst an autonomous car may not be able to avoid the traffic at least you will be able to pass the time doing something useful or interesting. This technology could be commercially available within the next three or four years.
We sure love the idea of driving a car without actually driving. However, there’s a lot of work yet to be completed. There are risks, and car manufacturers must find a way to diminish as much as possible for people to start buying self driving vehicles 10 years from now.