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Driverless Cars: Are we getting there

Recently there has been a lot of discussion in the media about driverless cars or more appropriately autonomous cars. That is, cars where the driver does not have to have his/her hands on the steering wheel. A number of competitions have taken place to evaluate the performance of current technology. Early work both in the USA and in Europe  resulted in cars that drove in traffic over extended distances. The DARPA Grand challenge saw 5 teams complete a desert course of more than 50 miles by 2005. Two years later the DARPA urban challenge saw 6 teams complete a 60 miles city like course with traffic . The DARPA Urban Grand Challenge motivated companies such as Google to pursue design of cars that can handle traffic, respect the traffic law to the letter and interact with other entities such as pedestrians, bikes, etc. on the road. Today legislation has been passed in the state of Nevada to allow use of driverless cars as part of regular traffic. In addition, both Florida and California have initiated efforts to revise their traffic laws to allow use of driverless cars. There is no doubt that there is a need for serious political considerations to make this possible across all areas as also noted by Brian Albright – “Driverless Cars – a politically hot potato” 

Other news stories have indicated that driverless cars only can be deployed in combination with significant investments in infrastructure. The argument is that such an investment would be too significant and either reduce deployment or prevent deployment entirely. The use of common infrastructure such as embedded landmarks/beacons is not a new idea. Such an approach was tested as part of the California Partners for Advanced Transportation TecHnology (PATH)  project
about 15 years. The approach is technically feasible, as it was used for convoys of cars to travel down 20 miles of highway, but the solution is economically unrealistic. However, we have seen tremendous progress on new sensor technology, computing and robust algorithms, which in reality alleviates the need for such fixed infrastructure.

We have seen steady progress on embedded new technology into cars. Already today some cars will warn you if there is another car in your blind spot. Some cars have technology to monitor if you brake the best possible way to avoid a collision. These are all ways of slowly augmenting the cars to improve safety and relieve drivers of some of the aspects of driving. Such a gradual introduction of technology is likely to be important to long-term adoption of the technology. There is no doubt driverless cars is the way of the future. It allows us to reduce the number of accidents, we can utilize infrastructure more effectively, and drivers can use commute time to do texting, read email, and whatever else would be a more productive use of their time. In the US alone more than 30,000 people are killed in traffic accidents every year. Our infra-structure has at best an 10% utilization, which could be doubled through use of driverless cars. According to US Department of Transportation the average American spends close to one hour per day commuting to / from work. Using such time productively could have a significant potential for the individual and society.

The introduction of driverless cars will allow people to continue to use a cars as they age, it will be safer, more economical, we will have better productivity, etc. All in all the driverless cars is a great investment for society and for individuals. However, it must be recognized that this will be an incremental process so it will take time before such solutions are deployed across multiple nations and across multiple brands of cars. The progress see with the Google Driverless cars  from the Google X-Labs and the recently reported drive from Parma, Italy to Shanghai, China are both great examples of how far technology has progress and an clear indication of things to come.

Categories: robotics
  1. October 20, 2012 at 9:18 pm | #1

    hmmm, I just think more problems will occur from this. For instance, will it be okay for a kid to be in a car with a adult if its computer controlled. If no then why not if it’s so safe to put your life in the hands of a computer. Good article but I don’t want this to happen in my life time.

    Check out my blog, its not finished though!

    • hichristensen
      October 20, 2012 at 9:28 pm | #2

      I see no reason why a child could not be in the car with an adult when driving. That is entirely OK today. We drive in driverless trains at the airport, and we use autonomous vacuum cleaners with children around. Obviously it will be important that the child not interfere with the operation of the vehicle, just as it is the case today.

      Initially when we started to use driverless trains there was an operator in the cabin, but s/he did nothing. Today the operator has been moved to a plant operation center. There is no need to have a person there. We needed this to build confidence in the system. I am sure there will be quite some time before we are entirely comfortable with such new technology, so it is important to consider that as systems are being deployed.

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