The Future of Driverless Cars

Millions of commuters sit in traffic day after day. Backups form due to congestion in the roadways, driver error, and accidents. But some day, cars may drive themselves, and even communicate among each other so the traffic we sit in today may soon be just a bad memory.

Today's defensive drivers may soon be simply relaxing passengers as autonomous vehicles take over the driving tasks. And you may never have to take a defensive driving class for a ticket again. It sounds like science fiction, but this is real technology under development today that may be widespread in as soon as 10 years.

The future of driverless cars means smarter, more efficient driving with fewer accidents. As cars park themselves, avoid accidents, and wirelessly communicate, drivers can safely relax behind the wheel. Much of the technology behind driverless cars is already on the road today as vehicles with automatic braking, blind spot sensors, and other safety features are developed.

Read on to learn about some of the self driving cars on the market and under development, autonomous driving features, and what's coming next for driverless vehicles.

Cars That Drive Themselves

  • Google Self Driving Car: Google has one of the most high profile self driving cars, garnering much of the attention surrounding autonomous vehicles. Google's car promises to make it safer and easier for everyone to get around with no driving required. So far, Google self driving cars have driven more than 1 million miles and are out on the streets of Mountain View and Austin. Google is considering selling autonomous vehicles in the future.
  • Tesla: While Google often gets more press, it's Tesla's vehicles that are really making moves in autonomous driving. In fact, a recent software update made its vehicles nearly autonomous. They are now able to automatically steer, change lanes, and park on their own. Eventually, Tesla plans to sell vehicles without wheels or pedals.
  • Volvo XC90: In 2017, 100 Volvo XC90s outfitted with autonomous technology will be available for autonomous driving in the manufacturer's hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden. Under the Drive Me program, the vehicles will be able to drive themselves on a specific 31 mile stretch of highway.
  • Audi Delphi: This year, Audi's Delphi autonomous car drove from San Francisco to New York. It did 99% of the driving on its own, with drivers in charge only on city streets. Audi is planning to deliver the first self driving car in 2017.
  • Chevrolet Volt: The Chevy Volt is part of General Motors' plans for autonomous vehicles. The manufacturer is set to have a fleet of self driving Volts on the campus of its technical center in 2016. GM's autonomous technology has been dubbed "Super Cruise."
  • Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion: This Mercedes research vehicle is a showcase of luxury. Its seats turn into each other, creating the feel of a mobile living room or office. Doors and consoles display graphics, and the seats look more like lounge chairs than car seats. In addition to autonomous driving, safety features are also stepped up with large LED displays, a laser projection system, and acoustic communication. Mercedes also has the S 500 Intelligent drive research vehicle, which drove about 100 kilometers between Mannheim and Pforzheim.
  • Apple Titan: Not to be outdone with new technology, Apple is reported to be creating their own electric car with hopes to sell it to the public as soon as 2019. Apple senior vice president Jeff Williams is quoted as saying, "the car is the ultimate mobile device," and a self driving vehicle would certainly fit the bill.

The Potential Behind Self Driving Cars

Autonomous vehicles open up a number of possibilities. Safer, less congested roadways, opportunities to work while commuting, even a solution for drunk driving are all part of what self driving cars may soon offer. Some of the positive potentials behind autonomous vehicles include:

  • Safety: Unfortunately, humans are often bad drivers. In 90% of crashes, driver error is the cause. That means human mistakes cost thousands of lives on the roadways each year. Self driving car advocates believe that without the element of human error, vehicles can stop 80% of collisions, saving thousands of lives and preventing even more injuries annually.
  • Reduced congestion: Human error is also often to blame for traffic woes. Reduced gaps and better management of traffic flow with driverless vehicles can stop traffic build ups before they start.
  • Transportation for all: Driving is somewhat limited to those who are able bodied, unimpaired, and old (or young enough) to drive. But a driverless vehicle opens up the possibility of allowing the elderly, blind, and others to be able to drive. It's also a solution for drunk driving, as self driving cars take home would-be drunk drivers home safely without incident.
  • Ability to work while commuting: Without needing to drive, passengers can complete work, browse social media, socialize, and more in the vehicle.

How Self Driving Cars Work

One of the biggest questions behind self driving cars is how they actually drive with little to no help from a human driver. How do they know where it's safe to drive, how fast to go, when to brake and turn?

In most autonomous vehicles, sensors and cameras are integral to driving. With the sensors, they will detect objects including other vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians. If an object is detected up ahead, the vehicle knows to slow down or stop to keep a safe distance. Sensors also let the car know when a lane change is safe, as they can detect other vehicles to the left and right as well.

Some of the autonomous vehicles being tested today use what's called lidar scanners, which create a visual representation of the environment that the car's computer understands. This environment is used to determine where the road and lanes are, as well as other vehicles and obstacles in the way.

More advanced vehicles using updated infrastructure will actually be able to communicate with the road. They'll get electronic signals from traffic lights, indications to stop at stop signs, updates about any incidents up ahead, and even communicate with each other to avoid collisions. They will also have a built in GPS system that shows the vehicle to follow driving directions -- and even choose the safest, most efficient way to go.

Autonomous Car Features on the Road Today

To see hints at how self driving cars work, you only need to look at some of the better equipped cars on the road today. Many luxury vehicles and well equipped family cars have features that hint at autonomous driving, or even take the vehicle into semi autonomous driving. These semi autonomous features are already seeing widespread use on the roadways today:

  • Automatic braking: Using sensors, vehicles can automatically apply the brakes to avoid a collision when there's a vehicle or another object too close up ahead and the driver is not reacting in time.
  • Adaptive cruise control: Similar to automatic braking, vehicles use this feature to maintain a safe driving distance. And like traditional cruise control, this features keeps a set speed.
  • Lane assist: With help from cameras and sensors, vehicles send an alert to drivers when they attempt to change lanes while another vehicle is next to them. Lane keeping also alerts drivers if they leave the lane. Some systems will actually steer the car back on course as well.
  • Self parking: Parallel parking challenged drivers everywhere have breathed a sigh of relief with new vehicles that use sensors to let drivers go hands free while parking into tight urban spaces.

Roadblocks for Self Driving Cars

Self driving cars aren't quite a reality just yet. For one, the technology isn't fully there. But there are other roadblocks that are keeping autonomous cars from widespread use today. These issues are questions autonomous vehicles will have to tackle before we can expect a fleet of driverless cars on the roads:

  • Drivers: Drivers are understandably nervous to let go of the wheel. Since cars were invented, we've been in charge, and it's unsettling to hand over your keys -- and your trust -- to what is essentially a very large robot you sit inside of. We've seen far too many sci-fi movies about machines taking over, and experienced too many computer viruses to be completely comfortable with driverless vehicles just yet. And then there are the legions of professional drivers including truckers, cabbies, and more that would be rendered unusable and unemployed.
  • Safety: Drivers are right to be nervous about driverless vehicles. Computers are designed to avoid errors, but ultimately, they do happen. It's one thing when you can't get your computer's Wi-Fi to work, but it's another when your vehicle experiences an error at 65 miles per hour, or it's hacked. Another safety concern is their interaction with other drivers, as self driving cars tend to have safer, slower driving habits that can be infuriating for regular drivers, sometimes causing accidents. Research has shown that so far, self driving cars aren't as safe as human drivers.
  • Expense: As with most new technology, autonomous features can be expensive. At least initially, most autonomous vehicles will be out of reach for the typical driver. Tesla's vehicles, for example, are typically in the neighborhood of $80,000. Not out of the question for a luxury vehicle, but far higher than the $30,000 or so paid for the average new vehicle.
  • Infrastructure: Today's roads are made for cars with drivers. But autonomous cars will be safest on roads that can communicate with them. For example, traffic lights that tell autonomous vehicles when a light is red, or map data that includes construction closure to avoid going off an exit that's closed for work.
  • Regulations, policies, and laws: Governments and insurance companies haven't quite worked out all of the questions surrounding autonomous vehicles, such as who is liable when autonomous cars crash, what safety standards they have to meet, and where, when, and how driving an autonomous vehicle is legal.

When Will We Have Autonomous Cars?

Predictions for worldwide use of driverless cars range from 2017 to 2025. Of course, Google's driverless cars are already driving themselves today, and Tesla's semi autonomous vehicles are on the road as well, many just a software update away from becoming fully autonomous.

It's not clear exactly when we can expect to see our streets full of driverless vehicles, but it does look like the next 10 years will be a turning point for personal vehicle transportation and autonomy. As new vehicles with autonomous and semi autonomous features are released, we will see a slow phase out of regular, human driven vehicles.


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