Driver error is the most common cause of road traffic accidents; and with the number of cars on the road ever increasing this is likely to remain the case. Distractions like mobile phones, sat nav, and the kids whinging in the back seat mean that drivers are never fully concentrating on the road as they should. If drivers aren’t going to concentrate on the road, then who is? Autonomous cars, that’s who.
We’ve all seen Google’s self driving car in the news recently, and it has actually been allowed to drive on the roads of California to demonstrate its abilities! Although autonomous cars aren’t available for public purchase just yet, they seem to be the future of driving, so we thought we’d take a look at them in more depth…
How the driverless car came to be
An early step towards driverless cars actually came about in the 1980s when anti-lock brakes were first introduced to vehicles. ABS technically needs the driver to apply the brakes, but they do a job that drivers used to have to do themselves. ABS prevents the wheels from locking up causing the car to skid when a driver has to brake hard. In cars without ABS the driver would need to repeatedly pump the brake pedal to prevent the wheels from locking. In the 1990s traction and stability control were introduced to vehicles, putting even more control into the hands of the vehicle rather than the driver.
The future is now
In the 21st century science fiction is real life and pre-safe systems are commonplace in vehicles. A pre-safe system works by detecting hazards before you’ve noticed them, and warning you with an alarm. Before you’ve even reacted the pre-safe system will have started to prime the brakes so that when your foot eventually reaches the pedal a mere tap will apply their full force. At the same time, engine power will also be reduced, slowing the car and reducing the severity of a collision. If the system detects that a crash is unavoidable then it will start to prepare the air bags for deployment; and all of this will happen in half the time it takes for the driver to respond!
Automatic parking systems are already in use on some vehicles. Sensors on the car guide it into a parallel parking space with no human input required. Find a parking space, pull up next to it, and tell the system where it needs to park; the car will then move into the space just as safely as a driver would, i.e. reading the area around it and reacting accordingly.
So how do driverless cars work?
Google’s Chauffeur system uses lidar, which stands for light detection and ranging. It works like radar and sonar but is much more accurate. Lidar maps points in space using 64 rotating laser beams which take more than a million measurements each second to form a 3D model in its computer brain that is accurate to the centimetre. Preloaded maps let the system know where stationary stuff like traffic lights and crossings are, and lidar fills in the changing landscape of traffic and people.
Unfortunately lidar is not fully automated just yet; it still needs the driver to take over from time to time. For example when pulling in and out of your driveway or negotiating a tricky interchange.
It is estimated by Google that their driverless cars will be ready for the public, and cheap enough for us to own, by 2018. So what do you think? Would you invest in an automated vehicle, or do you enjoy the experience of driving too much to let a robot take over?