An in Depth Analysis of Autonomous Cars
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, people dreamed of newer and better machines doing tasks that could not be done at the time. When first introduced to radio, we wondered if one day we would be able to also see those people speaking on the radio. When we first saw computers as big as a room, we wondered if one day computers would be doing other tasks and be smaller, faster and smarter. Upon seeing the first automobiles on the street, we thought about flying cars and self driving cars. Flying cars might still be a long way off because there are still some breakthroughs needed in science. The picture is different for robotic cars since we already have the scientific advances for its technology. They are coming our way for sure, and with full speed! Limited autonomous operation is being introduced in the next few years by major manufacturers. It is just a matter of refining the technology and putting it into commercial use. In fact, just recently Intel CTO stated that driverless cars might be available within 10 years.
Let’s have a look at when they started, and then we will move on to how they work, what we have today, and what is coming. We will then analyze their benefits and make some predictions.
History of Autonomous Cars
In 1980, a Mercedes Benz team was able to make a van that drove on empty streets with speeds of up to 100 km/hr. We see different projects starting after that point. Autonomous driving on natural terrain using sensors was achieved in 1987 by HRL Laboratories on an Autonomous Land Vehicle (ALV) funded by DARPA. In 1995, a Mercedes Benz team achieved 95% autonomous driving on a trip of 1600 km in Europe. In 2001, the U.S. Government, which funded projects such as Demo I, II, and III, achieved many miles of unmanned driving off the road, while avoiding all kinds of natural obstacles. From 2004 through 2007, DARPA Grand Challenge competitions for driverless cars took place, with prizes of 1 and later 2 million dollars. Different competing teams were hosted by major manufacturers or universities and served as a platform for improving the technology even further. With each subsequent year, the winner of the race performed more difficult tasks. As of the beginning of 2013,autonomous cars, although still in experimental and developmental stages, have driven autonomously for hundreds of thousands of miles in total. This technology is making its way into the consumer market with systems such as improved cruise control, automated parking, and low speed autonomous driving, which are all transitional steps towards full autonomy in driving.
How do autonomous cars work
We have already achieved some autonomy and the following are already being used in our cars.
Systems that are already in use:
Cruise Control: One of the first technologies toward the autonomous direction was cruise control. As we all know, cruise control systems work in order to keep a car in constant speed, without the driver having to apply gas.
Anti-lock Brakes: Basically this is a system that automatically prevents the locking of brakes, when the driver applies the brakes in full. The system performs a better job than the driver, as far as pumping the brakes in order to prevent the car from spinning and falling out of control.
Systems just starting to be used or will be in the near future:
Stability and Traction Control: These are the systems that use different sensors in order to determine when a car might skid or roll over and work in order to prevent these from happening. These systems are much more complicated in comparison to the two systems we mentioned above. The car's direction, speed, and the contact pressure between the road and the wheels are constantly monitored. When it is determined that the car is going out of control, the system will take over and apply brakes or adjust the pressure on each wheel. In most cases, this system provides optimal performance to that of a human driver. The system uses digital encoders similar to the ones used in anti-lock braking systems, in order to precisely measure wheel rotation.
Pre-accident Systems: These are the systems that sense an imminent crash and prepare the car just before it, in order to save lives and reduce injuries. The system prepares airbags, reduces engine power, and tightens seat belts. This occurs in a very short time, even before the driver has time to apply the brakes in full.
Traffic Jam Assist: Another step to full autonomy is the traffic jam assist system, which relieves drivers from the tiring work of stop and go traffic.
Improved Cruise Control: In addition to regular cruise control, an improved system, using radar sensor placed in front of the car, can sense a car in front and will adjust the speed accordingly, in order to maintain a safe distance between two cars.
Self-parking Systems: One system just being introduced on some luxury models is the self-parking ability. Of course, the car needs to be brought near the parking spot first by the driver and be told where the system is expected to park - but it is still a definite step forward on our journey toward full autonomous cars.
The systems of the future:
Fully autonomous cars: By fully autonomous cars, we mean that the vehicle is able to completely manage itself from point A to point B, without any human intervention whatsoever. This technology is already here, but not in the commercial stage yet. It is still in the experimental stage and is being tested as described above under the history of autonomous cars section. So how do autonomous cars work?
Autonomous cars basically need to do two things to find their way and drive: the complete map of its surrounding area including the objects and the travel path defined in that area, and its relative position, and it needs to know what it is doing with respect to that defined map. Defined means that the car "knows" the meaning of the objects on that map. Of course the map and the relative position of the car on that map are dynamic and being continuously updated. In order to produce this map, an autonomous car uses equipment such as:
Radar sensors: Radar sensors are mainly used to detect various obstacles
Cameras: Currently used for distinguishing lanes and backup assistance, but as image processing software continues to develop, the importance of cameras on board will increase. Image processing software currently can detect traffic signs and lights, lane stripes, and other objects.
GPS Units: Global Positioning System is used to determine a car's location by getting input from satellites.
Accelerometer: Helps with navigation of the car when the signal received from GPS devices are poor.
Ultrasound Sensor: Currently ultrasound sensors are mainly used for detecting obstacles in front and back of the car, while manually or automatically parking the car.
Wheel Sensor: Also used in stability and anti-lock braking systems, another use of the wheel sensors is to keep track of a vehicle's location when the GPS systems are temporarily unavailable due to poor signals.
Laser Range Finder (Lidar): Lasers that spin in order to constantly take horizontal distance measurements. Google's lidar system includes 64 infrared sensor units placed on top of the car, which costs about $70,000. The information taken from these measurements is combined with information coming from cameras and radar in order to create a detailed map of its surroundings. With this sensor taking so many measurements of the immediate surroundings of the car, a detailed 3D map can be produced.
Benefits of Driverless Cars and Future Predictions
The benefits of self-driving cars are obvious to even those with just a small amount of technological know-how. But let’s cover some facts and figures and paint a more detailed picture, including predictions for the future.
Reduced Accidents: Each year, an estimated number of 1.3 million people die in traffic accidents. It is the 10th leading cause of deaths overall, and 50 million more suffer injuries, according to a Wall Street Journal report based on World Health Organization data. Widespread use of autonomous cars will reduce this number, because the leading cause of all traffic accidents is human error. Of course we are assuming that by the time unmanned cars are allowed for general use, additional safety measures will be in place, along with improved technology to avoid “human error” being replaced by “machine error”. Even if there are rare machine errors that cause deaths or injuries, the total will still be much lower, in comparison to the figures we are seeing today. Therefore, I suspect when a machine error causes an accident, this will not be cause to disallow the whole autonomous driving concept, because the benefit of a greatly reduced number of fatalities will be apparent. It is similar to flying by airplane, in which accidents occur from time to time. These accidents are almost always the fault of the equipment, rather than the highly trained pilots. But regardless, we continue to fly, as the benefits to our civilization as a whole far overweigh the occasional, tragic losses we suffer. Statistically, flying is the safest way to transport, if you think in terms of the number of passengers carried versus the number of losses. When autonomous cars arrive, even this might change. Transporting ourselves safely is increasingly becoming easier to achieve, as we advance our technology, means of building and manufacturing, and through experience. Eventually, the death and injury rates, because of transporting ourselves, will decline to very, very low rates. Autonomous driving is a natural and logical step toward safer transportation. As everything becomes more and more automated, everyday items will be more information driven than by effort.
Traffic Reduction: Machines are very precise. They are incredibly fast in reacting too. Think about a highway with heavy traffic where cars stop and go… Each time a car moves, some seconds are lost between two cars. Multiply this by the total number of cars on the highway. You reach a very large number in terms of delayed traffic. Plus humans need a larger safety gap in between due to slower reaction time. With robotic cars, this inefficient process will be history. They will be able to react instantly to the moving traffic ahead with closer distances to each other. This, in effect, will create a much more efficient and continuous flow of traffic, which will increase highway capacities, even in packed situations. It will essentially create a “train of cars” on a highway. Also remember, it is not only the reaction time or shorter distance of the individual cars in question here. By swarm robotics concepts, these cars will also be able to communicate between themselves, and even with the surroundings, thanks to chips becoming cheaper than water and smaller than dust. They will very easily be placed (maybe even by spraying at some point) on every physical thing imaginable , which leads to further improvement of the communication process, increasing the safety and efficiency of driving. (By the way, the concept of chips making everything around us smarter and our physical world one large organism of living information, like an internet of physical things, is a very exciting and huge concept, which I also would like to write about, but let’s keep our focus on the subject here.)
Higher safe speeds: As the reaction times and safety of autonomous cars are far greater than humans, the speed limits will probably be increased. More space and easier parking: The parking process will be much easier both in terms of space and time. Someone who needs to find a parking place, will just be dropped off wherever he wants and his car will park itself at a location where parking space is abundant. This will save the passenger’s time and will also help solve parking space problems, as the car may park far away and come back when it is needed again.
Traffic Police: There will be a dramatically reduced need for traffic police, if at all.
Insurance: Car insurance premiums will decrease. The main cause of higher premiums is accidents and reduction in this number will make premiums cheaper.
Time Saving: Needless to say, the most obvious benefit about autonomous cars is that instead of spending time by paying attention to the road, you will now be able to do something more productive in your car, such as reading the latest celebrity news and following who is dating whom.
Less Cars and Lower Costs: Overall, there will be a reduced number of cars needed and the average cost of transportation by car will decrease. One reason is the elimination of a redundant passenger in many cases. This will in turn increase the carrying capacity of the cars, meaning fewer cars in operation. Services, such as taxi drivers, will no longer be needed. Overall fuel consumption will decrease, as the weight of unnecessary passengers is eliminated and fewer cars operate on the road. Another contributing factor is people will be able to lend, rent and borrow cars easier, as the cars can drive where they are needed. At present, most of the time our cars wait for us uselessly, occupying parking spaces. But imagine cars with the ability to drive and carry others instead of idly waiting for us. There will be times when you might want to keep your car just for yourself, but we are speaking on average. It means the operational time of cars on average will increase, which in turn means, the same total amount of transportation we need as a society will be achieved by a fewer amount of cars. Today, if you wanted to lend your car , he or she would need to come to your physical location to get your car and the keys. This will actually make it kind of redundant and very inconvenient to get your car because in order to get to your location, that person would need to use another car or at least some sort of transportation. Car renting, borrowing, and taxi concepts will be transformed this way. You may not even have to be near your car to start it. Just enter your credentials by a phone app or on the internet, and it will start your car for you through its internet connection. You then tell your car where to go and when to come back. So the “Kitt, I need you to get me out of here, you copy?” in the old “Knight Rider” TV Series will become reality. There may even be internet sites or phone apps arranging all these instantly between people who want to lend or borrow. Or you just go to the street the old way and pull a cab – without a driver. The cab will be able to operate for longer hours than a regular cab, as it has no driver with the need to eat or sleep. This in turn means less taxis on the road. The details of the whole system will naturally smooth itself out in time, but you get the point.
While discussing fewer cars on the road, we should not forget the impact of market forces. If the number of cars significantly decreases , then the price to borrow a car will increase to the point that owning one will be cheaper for some. So in the end, it will balance itself. We must not forget that the cost of manufacturing physical things always decreases, which will be true for making cars too. But just because it will be cheaper, doesn’t mean we will have an unnecessary amount of cars on the roads. Although the price of a car will be less expensive, there are still associated costs, such as registration, maintenance and insurance. Those who do not own their own car will need to purchase daily or monthly tickets for car usage, such as a metrocard or train or bus pass of today, provided through a local municipality or a local taxi or rental car company. Just swipe your metrocard or “autocard” when the car arrives. For example, in January 2013, Avis invested in this concept, buying Zipcar for nearly $500 million. Zipcar provides car sharing services as described in here, without the autonomous cars – yet- of course. When the technology arrives, the infrastructure is already in place. So the conclusion is -- fewer cars and lower costs, as this whole thing simply becomes another automated and redundant process in our lives, which used to be inefficient and tiresome in the past (today). It can be compared to excavating a foundation pit in the past by hand versus using the big excavators of today (even they will be without operators, but that will come definitely after autonomous cars. In that case, the AI must replace a skilled operator who used to perform much more complicated tasks, in comparison to what a regular car driver does)
Benefits to elderly and handicapped people: The autonomous cars will provide more independence to people who are unable to drive, such as elderly, blind or disabled. Improved transportation of goods: Autonomous cars can be sent to do tasks eliminating the need to carry passengers, just goods. Orders could be placed online or by phone and a car sent to pick it up. This is an option if the buyer doesn’t want to wait for delivery or pay for shipping. The seller will load the goods into the car for pickup. The seller may also offer delivery services similar to today, but with the elimination of the driver shipping costs will decrease. It is apparent the retail and shipping industries will be greatly impacted. In many cases, we drive to a retail shop, just to load the goods into our car and bring them home, unless we want to see or do something inside. Although at the retail store, we often do or buy something additional than originally planned. Eliminating all this and just sending your car will therefore have effects on the retail industry. It will also mean more free time at home, doing more useful things-- like watching celebrity magazine shows and thinking about why some famous pop singer’s marriage lasted for 6 days.
Impacts on the economy: Fear not, autonomous cars do not mean we are losing jobs to robots. As has happened since the industrial revolution, each automation creates higher quality and more information based jobs, even if it eliminates some old professions. As in the industrial revolution in which machines replaced almost all people working on farms, these people began doing something else. Other professions were created by the new technologies. For instance in this case, we will not have taxi drivers anymore, but more people will be needed to create and manage the software and the process. Fewer cars mean fewer auto mechanics, of course. There is no way around it. Robot cars will have fewer accidents, too. They will drive less abusively and more efficiently, which means fewer repairs per car, not including regular maintenance. Add to this fact that our ability to manufacture goods is always perfecting itself and we are able to make things more durable with better systems and materials, needing less replacement. All of these combined, I anticipate at least a 50% decrease in the number of auto mechanic shops. This can be expected by the time autonomous cars become mainstream and that trend will continue. Fewer auto mechanic shops mean a huge decrease in the automotive parts and accessories economies also. This will have a domino effect on the economy, as the automotive industry is one of the locomotive industries of the economy, affecting so many other industries. But again, these lost jobs and economy due to increased efficiency of car transportation, will be replaced by new professions created by new technology. I do not foresee a negative impact, as it never happened that way since the beginning of industrial revolution. As always, effort and physical material based jobs will just be replaced with intelligence and information based jobs.
Overall, if you consider all the above benefits, and combine them in your mind, you will see that we are looking at a much more improved picture of transportation with a lot of positive impacts on the society. Think about fewer cars combined with increased highway capacities, increased speed limits, much better parking and safer transportation. The impacts of driverless driving on our society will be just huge… In the end, this will be viewed as any other simple automation that happened in our lives, like many other things that we take for granted today but is automated already, such as robots making cars, or software checking credit card fraud automatically. Finally, in 2050, at a time when manual driving will for so long be history that few people will even remember it, our children will look at the old movies of today, and our manual driving of cars will seem to them the same way we perceive horse carriages today.
What are auto manufacturers working on:
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This section is being written
As the cars will be driving themselves, the responsibility and liability picture will look a little different of course. In case of a car accident for instance, the liability will belong to whoever is responsible for not maintaining the software and the mechanical condition of the responsible car according to the laws and regulations. If you are the car owner, you will be responsible to make sure your car is maintained per the current laws. If you are the mechanic, you will be responsible for doing the maintenance per the standards. Owning a car that drives itself means you do not have to go to the repair shop anymore. Your car will automatically go there when needed. I am suspecting that by the time we have widespread use of autonomous cars, auto mechanics will also be in a transition phase of losing their jobs to robots, so this whole maintenance process will look much more automated. This may even mean bigger and more consolidated auto repair super-shops that will replace smaller shops.
As of March 2013, Nevada, Florida, and California have already passed laws regarding driverless cars. The laws require the motor vehicle departments to establish rules and standards for autonomous vehicle operation and serves to pave the way for mainstreaming the technology on the highways.
In Europe for instance, Volvo has teamed up with Car to Car Communication Consortium, in order to have the infrastructure of vehicle to vehicle communication, or the traffic lights and signs that communicate with vehicles to start to be in place within the next several years. If you remember the fact that chips are becoming more of a commodity like water or electricity, with ever decreasing prices and dimensions, it is inevitable in the very near future that everything around us will be intelligent.
Another consideration when comparing the autonomous systems versus the manually driven system is the elimination of human judgment, which is still far better than Artificial Intelligence and will be this way for a long time. It is true and we have already mentioned that the driverless cars will make fewer mistakes in comparison to human drivers, but there will be some point in time that using an automated system will not be as good as a human using common sense in making judgments. All these different scenarios will need to be sorted out before driverless technology will be allowed. But as we argued above, even with occasional possible glitches, the overall benefits will far overweigh the costs.