By Larry Carley September 2012
Within the next few years, some vehicle manufacturers will be building self-driving cars that will have a limited ability to actually steer, brake and guide themselves. These early autopilot systems won't make a vehicle completely autonomous or capable of driving without human input or intervention, but eventually self-driving driverless cars that are fully capable of transporting their passengers from A to B without a human hand touching the steering wheel will be a reality.
European, Asian and domestic auto makers as well as Google, numerous colleges and the military are all working to perfect self-driving and driverless technology that will eventually make vehicles easier and safer to operate by reducing or totally eliminating accidents caused by human error (which accounts for most accidents). General Motors says its forthcoming "Super Cruise" system, which may be offered in MY 2017 on some models, will be capable of providing an autopilot function for highway cruising and even urban driving.
There are a couple approaches being taken with this new technology. A Self-Driving car is one that still have a human driver behind the steering wheel, but can take over all driving functions in an autopilot mode so the driver can enjoy hands-free driving. The driver can resume full control of the vehicle at any point, as functions as a safety backup in case the self-driving system malfunctions. A driverless or autonomous vehicle, on the other hand, requires no human operator. It is essentially a robotic vehicle capable of hauling passengers or cargo to a predetermined destination. It communicates with other vehicles, roadside traffic controls and the internet by means of Telematics.
There are advantages and disadvantages of self-driving cars and driverless autonomous vehicles to consider:
Drunk drivers cause roughly one third of all traffic accidents and fatalities. If a vehicle can take over for an intoxicated driver, that should greatly reduce the number of alcohol-related accidents and deaths. That's a good thing, right? The downside it that the number of tickets and arrests for DUI could plummet, causing a severe drop in revenue for local government and DWI/DUI lawyers. Insurance companies would also take a hit because they couldn't jack up your insurance rates for a DUI because there wouldn't be a need for DUI enforcement. DUI would become a non-issue (assuming the vehicle could prevent an intoxicated driver from taking the wheel).
Self-driving and driverless autonomous vehicles would obey all posted speed limits and traffic control signs. This would reduce the danger of speeding in work zones, school zones and congested traffic. But it would also reduce a huge source of income for local and state governments that comes in the form of speeding ticket and other traffic citations. This, in turn, might reduce the need for so many traffic cops, red light cameras and speed cameras.
Sleepy drivers who doze off and plow into other vehicles or run off the road cause an estimated 56,000 accidents a year, according to the NHTSA. These kind of accidents result in 40,000 injuries and 1550 deaths. A vehicle that could detect a sleep deprived driver or a driver who is falling asleep and assume control of the vehicle could prevent most of these accidents and injuries. The downside? Fewer crashes means fewer repair claims to insurance companies, fewer collision repairs for body shops, fewer repair parts sold to fix collision damaged vehicles, fewer injuries for doctors to treat, and fewer lawsuits for auto-related accident injuries and disabilities. This could reduce the need for insurance claims adjusters, body repair technicians, ambulance drivers and trial lawyers.
Vehicles that can drive themselves should reduce accidents caused by drunk driving, distracted driving and human error. Hands-free driving would allow drivers to pursue other activities while traveling, such as texting, reading email, checking their FaceBook page, watching YouTube videos or streaming video, eating, napping or whatever. The driver can be totally disconnected from the driving experience, relying solely on technology to direct his vehicle to his destination. The driver just becomes another passenger. This is fine for a vehicle that is truly autonomous and can drive itself from start to finish, but may not be so safe for a vehicle that may return control to the driver at an inopportune moment when the driver is distracted by some other activity.
Driverless fully autonomous vehicles that need no driver at all (not even for a backup) will eventually come once the self-driving technology has proven itself, but there could be major economic consequences. Cabs would not need cab drivers. Trucks would not need ruck drivers. Buses would not require bus drivers. This could put a LOT of people out of work who are presently employed in these occupations. Over-the-road trucks with no driver behind the wheel could theoretically run 24 hours a day (or until they needed to stop for fuel), thus lowering the cost of transporting goods. There would be fewer car-truck accidents because there would be no fatigued, distracted or angry truck drivers behind the wheel. But that would eliminate the customer base of interstate truck stops that rely on truckers supporting their business. It would also put a lot of truck driver schools out of business.
The technology has already proven that a human driver is not needed to pilot a vehicle. If Audi can send a driverless car up Pikes Peak at race car speeds without plunging off the road, the same technology can surely keep a car or truck in the same lane on the open highway or help it navigate urban traffic. A self-driving car or driverless autonomous vehicle should also be fully capable of recognizing and avoiding pedestrians, animals and other obsacles in the road.
Most of the prototype driverless autonomous cars require a trunkfull of computers, bulky cameras and antennas to self-navigate. But as the technology evolves it becomes smaller, more efficient, more reliable and cheaper to manufacture. Some car makers say they can probably offer a self-driving autopilot capability in the near future for $3,000 or less. The first systems will only be available in luxury vehicles, but as costs come down the technology will likely spread to all cars, just like airbags, antilock brakes, tire pressure monitoring systems and stability control. And like these other safety technologies, some type of electronic driving aide may eventually be required by law on ALL vehicles that operate on public roads. This, in turn, would mean older "manually operated" vehicles would be restricted to certain types of roads or banned from congested urban areas where traffic lights may become a thing of the past. With fully automated driving control systems and communication between vehicles, many urban roads could theoretically handle higher volumes of traffic than they can safely handle now. Same for expressways.
Reliability is still a huge concern for many people. A self-driving car or autonomous vehicle would have to have redundant fail-safes built in to prevent a runaway car or a car that suddenly loses track of where it is or where it is going due to some electronic failure or glitch. The system would have to revert control (with adequate warning) back to the driver, or if there was no driver to pull the vehicle off the road and shut it down.
Legal issues. Nevada was the first sate to legalize the use of self-driving cars on public highways. California has also approved self-driving cars, and other states are considering similar legislation. Another concern is liability. Who is responsible if a car that drives itself is involved in an accident or crashes? Who do you sue? The vehicle owner? The vehicle manufacturer? The company who designed the self-driving system? How would such a vehicle be insured? Insurance companies would have a hard time justifying high premiums and annual rate increases for vehicles that would likely be much safer than today's vehicles and would likely experience fewer accidents and claims. That,in turn, could mean a sizable drop in insurance premiums (and profits for the insurance companies!).
Privacy is another concern, at least for some people. If a vehicle can drive itself an navigate from A to B, it must keep track of its location at all times. This means a vehicle's whereabouts could be easily tracked for any number of reasons. Parents could keep track of their teenagers. A jealous spouse could keep a watchful eye on their partner to make sure they don't stray. Law enforcement could monitor the travels of various individuals who might merit watching.
Who would have access to this information? Just law enforcement? Just Google? Or anybody? Could the information be hacked? Would rules be put in place to restrict the use of this kind of driving information? Google would love to track people and build profiles of their travel habits so they could better market all kinds of advertising and services to motorists. Imagine being bombarded with localized targeted advertisements as your vehicle drives past restaurants, gas stations, stores, car lots, you-name-it. It could open up a whole new way to market to motorists.
These are all issues that must eventually be dealt with and resolved. There will be missteps and mistakes made along the way, but self-driving cars and driverless autonomous vehicles are coming. It's just a question of when. Some say within 20 to 25 years, the majority of vehicles on the road will either have self-driving capability or be fully autonomous. The only places where drivers will still be able to wrap their sweaty little fingers around a steering wheel will be on remote rural roads, when driving off-road or on a race track.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said that over the next four years it would be studying the safety risks of cars that can drive themselves. The study includes vehicles that offer some degree of autonomous operation including automatic braking, steering and speed control.
The NHTSA study classifies vehicles according to their level of sophistication, from Level 0 (no automation at all) to Level 4, which is full self-driving automation. A Level 4 vehicle would be one that is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. The only driver input required would be for destination or navigation input, or to resume control of the vehicle should a failure occur in the guidance system.
Vehicles that do not require the driver's input for various functions can be beneficial, and some consumer surveys show that motorists appreciate such features as adaptive cruise control, emergency braking and parking assist. But NHTSA says it wants to evaluate the safety of self-driving cars before it gives its approval. In the meantime, NHTSA is asking state governments to delay the licensing of fully autonomous self-driving vehicles for general highway use. They can be licensed for testing purposes, but not everyday hands-free driving.
NHTSA said it also wants to study how drivers interact with autonomous driving systems, and whether or not this poses any safety issues. The study will also determine whether or not special training and licensing may be required.
Volvo Cars is playing a leading role in the world's first large-scale autonomous driving pilot project. One hundred modified self-driving Volvo cars will be put on public roads in everyday driving conditions around the Swedish city of Gothenburg. The project is supported by the Swedish government, which sees self-driving cars as a way to reduce accidents and improve driving safety.
Feedback from the real world pilot project will help Volvo refine the technology that will eventually go into production vehicles. The goal is for the car to be able to handle all possible traffic scenarios by itself, including leaving the traffic flow and finding a safe place to pull over if the driver is unable to regain control.
The "Drive Me" project will focus on a number of areas, including:
How autonomous vehicles bring societal and economic benefits by improving traffic efficiency, the traffic environment and road safety.
Infrastructure requirements for autonomous driving
Typical traffic situations suitable for autonomous vehicles
Consumer's confidence in autonomous vehicles
How surrounding drivers interact smoothly with a self-driving car
The project starts this year with customer research and technology development, as well as the development of a user interface and cloud functionality. The first cars are expected to be on the roads in Gothenburg by 2017.
A research vehicle designed by Delphi was the first vehicle to successfully drive coast to coast using self-driving technology. The specially equipped Audi Q5 SUV traveled from New York to San Fransisco, a distance of 3400 miles on auto pilot for 99 percent of the trip. The test engineer who sat in the driver's seat barely touched the steering wheel or pedals during the entire trip, except for a few instances were road construction made accurate navigation difficult.
The test vehicle was fitted with six lidar sensors to measure distances, plus four short range radars and three cameras to watch the road.
Tesla beat all of the other auto makers by introducing the first "Autopilot" system that is fully capable of driving, steering and braking the car in a special cruise control mode. Although this system is not a full blown self-driving car, it's pretty darn close. It allows hands-free driving in most traffic situations.
Even more unique is the fact that the new Autopilot system was sent wirelessly to Tesla owners as an upgrade download. The vehicle did not have to be returned to a dealer for modifications. Also, there was no charge for the upgrade.
Here is the official Tesla announcement:
Tesla's commitment to developing and refining the technologies to enable self-driving capability is a core part of our mission. In October of last year we started equipping Model S with hardware to allow for the incremental introduction of self-driving technology: a forward radar, a forward-looking camera, 12 long-range ultrasonic sensors positioned to sense 16 feet around the car in every direction at all speeds, and a high-precision digitally-controlled electric assist braking system.
Today's Tesla Version 7.0 software release allows those tools to deliver a range of new active safety and convenience features, designed to work in conjunction with the automated driving capabilities already offered in Model S. This combined suite of features represents the only fully integrated autopilot system involving four different feedback modules: camera, radar, ultrasonics, and GPS. These mutually reinforcing systems offer realtime data feedback from the Tesla fleet, ensuring that the system is continually learning and improving upon itself.
Autopilot allows Model S to steer within a lane, change lanes with the simple tap of a turn signal, and manage speed by using active, traffic-aware cruise control. Digital control of motors, brakes, and steering helps avoid collisions from the front and sides, as well as preventing the car from wandering off the road. Your car can also scan for a parking space, alert you when one is available, and parallel park on command.
Wow! It sounds like fully autonomous driving is closer than we think!