People love their cars. But driving can be risky. When it comes to moving at 100 kilometers per hour, the laws of physics are not always on our side. Stopping a car, slowing it down, or changing its direction at high speed can be difficult and dangerous. But there is a solution to the problem of driving: remove the drivers.
Humans are the biggest unknowns on the roads. People do lots of silly things while behind the wheel: they drive too fast, change lanes unpredictably, and sometimes they even fall asleep. If machines replace human drivers, many of those dangers might disappear.
Imagine a world in which everyone becomes a passenger, free to read a book, talk on the phone, even finish a piece of toast without the need to pay attention to the road. It’s a world in which machines do the driving. That might sound like science fiction, but it’s closer than you think. There are already driverless cars out there successfully navigating cities and highways. Google, the Internet search company, is developing the best known of these autonomous vehicles. In fact, Google’s cars have already driven over 300,000 kilometers since they were introduced, including challenging, twisty, and narrow roads in San Francisco, California.
The first task, of course, is to stay on the road and get from one place to another safely. Driverless vehicles use sophisticated maps and location software to know where they are and where they’re going. Michael Vernier, a graduate researcher with the Ohio State University College of Engineering, says the most difficult task automated vehicles face is driving safely despite continually changing conditions on the road.
Weather, debris, and parked cars pose problems for the automated car, but the most serious variables arise from unpredictable humans. Will a particular car stop or speed up? Will a pedestrian dart out into traffic or wait until the light changes? Answering these questions in real time requires “active feedback” systems. These give autonomous vehicles the ability to sense traffic signals, pedestrians, and other cars. The Google car, for instance, uses 64 infrared lasers mounted to its roof to collect over a million data points every second. It also features radar systems on its bumpers and a camera to detect traffic lights.
Vernier points out that detecting what other cars are doing by bouncing light off them can be difficult and expensive. A better option might be direct car-to-car communication. Even a car driven by a human can still send out messages. For example, a radio wave might instantly signal nearby vehicles when a driver’s foot touches the brake pedal. This could result in faster reaction time for the autonomous vehicle. Instead of trying to sense the brake lights on the car in front of it, the autonomous car could react directly to the signals transmitted from surrounding traffic.
If autonomous vehicles completely replace human drivers, cars could drive much more closely together. Overall road capacity would increase and traffic jams would be less frequent. Reaction time would essentially drop to zero, as all the cars in a line could stop (and start again) at the same moment, reducing accidents and inefficiency.
Constant communication between vehicles’ onboard computers would alert the computer pilot about conditions on the road ahead, including things like construction delays, and instantly compute alternate routes. The excuse, “I was caught in traffic” could become a relic of the past.
Autonomous cars will not replace human drivers overnight, says Vernier. Instead, there will be a slow progression as machines do more and more and humans do less and less. Already, some new cars can park automatically. Others monitor the driver’s condition, ensuring a driver hasn’t fallen asleep behind the wheel. All these advances promise to make driving safer and more efficient.
Even so, many people voice concerns about the safety of autonomous vehicles. What if there’s an accident? Who is at fault in a driverless car? The passengers? The software designer? The manufacturer? There are important questions to answer about driverless cars, and important choices for our society to make. Technology opens up new possibilities, but it doesn’t solve every problem effortlessly.
What is the future of driverless cars? Only we can decide.
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