What are Autonomous Cars?
Autonomous cars, also known as driverless or self-driving cars, are the vehicles which can navigate on their own by sensing the environment without depending on any human input. Such cars are fitted with advanced control systems that interpret sensory information so as to determine the navigation as well as identify the obstacles or any relevant signage. However, it’s important to note that an autonomous car doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s completely robotic. There are various autonomous functions in a car which operate at different levels and each car in the present market has certain automatic systems.
Figure 1: Self-Driving Cars
In the past few years, we have witnessed a lot of new things introduced by some of the major key players of the automobile world. From Google’s self-driving car to Tesla’s autopilot; the innovative technology has apparently taken the autonomous concept to a whole new level. As we try to evaluate how far we have come in this journey of driverless cars, here’s a concise introduction to autonomous cars encompassing all relevant details of the subject.
History of Driverless Cars
As far as the autonomous vehicle technology is concerned, Leonardo Da Vinci designed a cart that could move without any push or pull in the 15th Century AD when the cars were not even invented. But later in the History, when cars were invented, the experiments to automate cars started in the 1920s with trails taking place in the 1950s. However, it is believed that the truly autonomous cars came into existence in the 1980s. After that, all the prominent companies like Mercedes, Nissan, Audi, General Motors, Toyota, and even Google started working on preparing prototypes of the autonomous vehicles.
Precisely, the first step towards driverless cars was taken with the introduction of anti-lock brakes in the 1980s. The same system is used today with certain improvements and additional features like traction control and different schemes depending upon the number of speed sensors and valves available for the wheels. Cars without an ABS system are subject to the danger of their wheels being locked up which could make the car skid. In order to prevent this locking up, the driver has to keep pumping the brake pedal. But an ABS takes care of the pumping and prevents the skidding much more efficiently than a human ever could.
Levels of Automation
As mentioned above, there are pre-described levels of automation that determine to what degree a car can be referred to as an autonomous vehicle. Let’s take a quick look at these levels.
• Level 0 (No Automation): At this level, there is little or no assistance provided by the vehicle and the driver is required to be fully focused on different aspects of driving.
• Level 1 (Driver Assistance): Under this classification, the vehicle offers assistance regarding tasks like steering or acceleration/deceleration. Although the driver is fully responsible for all the driving tasks, the technology helps in the form of warnings and alerts.
• Level 2 (Partial Automation): These cars use technology to study their driving environment and offer feedback in real-time while the driver is needed to react to them and take proper action.
• Level 3 (Conditional Automation): At this level, the car is able to take certain decisions based on the minor driving conditions. The driver can intervene if he wishes to do so yet the car can very well monitor the situation.
• Level 4 (High Automation): In high automation, the car takes care of all the important aspects of driving irrespective of the response of the driver to a particular warning.
• Level 5 (Full Automation): At the highest level of automation, the car is equipped with systems that can handle all the driving aspects in all kinds of roadways or environmental conditions. The inputs or intervention of the driver is not needed at all.
How does a Car Drive Itself?
In order to work autonomously, a car is required to be able to understand its driving environment thereby communicating with other elements on the road and respond to specific changes. For this, these vehicles are equipped with a wide range of infrastructures and technologies, primarily consisting of the following components -:
• LIDAR: It uses laser beams to generate a 360-degree image of the surroundings of the car.
• Cameras: These detect traffic lights and other signs and identify moving objects on the road.
• RADAR Sensors: These measure the distance between the car and an obstacle or object on the road.
• Main Computer: it analyses the data received from sensors and compares its stored maps to assess the situation.
• GPS: It uses radars and camera feedback to detect the variables and chooses the best path to reach the destination
Figure 2: How a Self Driving Car Sees its Surroundings
These sensors fitted in a car interpret the surroundings in the form of colorful boxes and fences for identifying different objects and send it the main brain. After assessing the situation, necessary decisions are taken by the system, either performed automatically or by the driver when he gets the warning.
Self Driving Features Already in Use
• Adaptive Cruise Control
Figure 3: Demonstration of Adaptive Cruise Control of a Toyota Model
Cars fitted with this technology measure the speed and distance of other cars using long-range radar and laser systems. This maintains a pre-defined distance with other vehicles on the road and is usually helpful in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It ensures that when a vehicle ahead of you slows down, your car also slows down and when a vehicle enters your lane, your car is at a safe distance.
• Collision Avoidance System
Figure 4: Collision Avoidance Warning
• Lane Departure Warning
Figure 5: Lane Departure Warning Alert
• Blind Spot Monitor
Figure 6: Blind Spot Monitor Alert Shown on the ORVM of the car
• Park Assist
Figure 7: Park Assist Features Shown on the Dashboard
The Park Assist system is equipped with sensors and cameras which capture a wide-angle view at the rear of the car and the feedback is projected at the dashboard or an instrument panel. Besides, it also steers the car optimally so as to assist the drive to reverse-park.
Companies Involved in Making Driverless Cars
Figure 8: Google Self-Driving Car Interior
Numerous automakers like Tesla, Audi, Mercedes Benz, and other companies including Uber and Google are working passionately on rolling out fully autonomous cars by the year 2021. Apparently, it’s no longer a concept; rather driverless cars are gradually becoming a part of the actual world.
• In September 2016, Uber joined hands with Volvo and introduced 100 self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. Besides, it has recently announced another alliance with Daimler AG to build self-driving Mercedes-Benz models.
• The Google driverless car project kicked off in 2009 and in 2014 a prototype was presented without any steering or control pedals. In December 2016, the project was transformed into a new company called Waymo. It has already crossed the testing phase and is ready to be commercialized.
• Tesla Motors, the company had introduced the autopilot feature (Hardware 1) in 2014, which has been recently upgraded (Hardware 2) in October 2016. As far as the software package is concerned, Tesla had rolled out version 7.0 in October 2015, followed by version 7.1 in December 2015 and finally the Firmware 8.0 in 2016.
• BMW has recently announced its partnership with Intel and Mobileye which is aimed to roll out 40 self-driving BMWs by the end of this year. It had tested the driverless feature in 2011 with the 330i model followed by 6 Series Gran Coupe model in 2014. Almost all high-end BMW cars are equipped with intelligent parking, driving and vision systems.
• Audi has joined hands with the graphics cards maker Nvidia to develop Level-4 autonomous cars by 2020. The Q7 SUV model was fitted with AI technology for experimental purposes, as a result of which, it learned to drive itself in just 4 days.
• Other automakers like Honda, Nissan, Ford, and Fiat are also taking steps on their respective projects, either independently or in alliance with other companies, to develop fully autonomous cars.
Safety Issues related to Driverless Cars
Right from the time when companies were struck with the thought of developing driverless cars, there has been a never-ending debate on the autonomous technology. On one hand, there are various benefits like easy commute of old, sick people or kids as well as reduced number of accidents. On the other hand, it still seems to be a bad idea to trust a machine driving autonomously on a busy road and it could also lead to increased number of cars implying more traffic.
Figure 9: Self Driving Cars Safety Concerns
One of the most important aspects of using a driverless car is the safety of the occupants and others on the road. Even though the technology has reduced the number of accidents occurring due to human errors; there are some incidents leading to accidents and casualties. Mentioned below are some driverless cars mishaps.
In June 2016, a Tesla Model S failed to stop in front of an 18-wheel truck resulting in a crash which then made the car run off the road, hitting a fence and then a power pole. The Model S occupant named Joshua Brown died in the accident and there were serious concerns regarding the safety of the Tesla’s Autopilot system. However, it was later declared by auto safety regulators that no fault was found with the autopilot system.
In February 2016, an autonomous Google Lexus model collided with a bus while trying to take a right turn. Fortunately, nobody got injured but the car’s radar was torn apart and its tyre was flattened. As per Google’s reports, their cars have encountered 14 minor accidents and it was just one time when the car was at fault.
A computer-controlled Uber was caught on camera when it ran a traffic light for after four seconds of the light turning red. However, the company claimed that it was the driver’s fault after which he was suspended.
One of the self-driving taxis of NuTonomy (Singapore-based startup) collided with a lorry damaging the right bumper of the car and leaving a dent on the side of the lorry. It was later found that it was a software glitch and services were resumed after fixing the defect.
AeroMobil is a startup which has developed a “flying car” which operates as a car as well as a flying plane. In May 2015, the self-flying car crashed during a test flight while the occupants sustained minor injuries. Later, the company conducted several tests which were successful and now it is soon going to accept pre-orders for the car.
Driverless Cars: How far are we from the Mainstream Self- Driving Technology?
Figure 10: Nissan IDS Concept
Developing a driverless car and commercialising a driverless car are two completely different things. There are a lot of moral, ethical and legal issues that need to be addressed before making the self-driving technology mainstream. Currently, states like Michigan, California, Florida, Nevada, and District of Columbia have legalized the testing of autonomous cars while some others have either rejected or considering the option. Particularly after Tesla’s fatal car crash, the laws related to autonomous cars are being revised carefully.
Although a lot of automakers are already promising to bring fully autonomous cars by the year 2020, we are still very far away from the practicality of having a level-5 self-driving car. One of the most basic reasons for this gap between the plans and reality is that who is to be blamed if anything goes wrong? You can’t blame the car because it’s a robot and you can’t blame the driver because he is not controlling the car.
There needs to be a proper legislation and clarity of roles and responsibilities so that the loss of life and property can be avoided. Despite so many innovations and developments, there are still certain loopholes which need to be addressed. For example, some self-driving cars can’t detect the cyclists and pedestrians on the road.
So the bottom line is that one can never be sure about the efficiency and behaviour of a machine but then one must not stop innovating. No matter how far we are from the idea of driverless cars being mainstream we are still on our way towards a future which is hopeful of making a big change; that has already happened to some extent.
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