SELF- DRIVING CARS – The Future of Mobility

Transportation technology is entering a new dimension with Self-driving automobiles in extensive trials and testing. Experts predict that we’ll be seeing fully automated self-driven cars on road by 2021. Automated cars are already driving themselves on roads in California, Texas, Pennsylvania Arizona & Michigan but are still restricted to specific areas and driving conditions, preferably lesser traffic & public. Seems like it won’t take long to turn the idea of Driverless cars into a mainstream reality.

Automated cars permitted on public roads in February 2017 are not fully autonomous and still require a human driver behind the wheel, ready to intervene and take control of the vehicle at a moment’s notice if something goes wrong. Leading Car manufacturers are burning the midnight oils using latest technologies, working with their best engineers and programmers on board to launch some really cool fully automated vehicles with amazing features in near future.

AUTOMOBILE GIANTS’ STANCE

Mega-Giants of Automobile industry have their own definition & targets for a fully automated self-driving car. For mechanical engineers, it is a revolutionary technology which would be able to operate by itself under all conditions, while for some it’s a vehicle which would be capable of driving your kids to school on its own and saving you from the last moment troubles.

According to the Wall Street Journal, while TOYOTA’s target for an autonomous drive to be achieved by 2020 is a vehicle which can get on and off the highway and change lanes without driver’s input, FORD’s Version is far advanced with the vision of high-volume, fully autonomous SAE level 4-capable vehicle in commercial operation. The limitation to that design is it would only be capable of self-driving in those portions of major cities where the company can create and regularly update extremely detailed 3-D street maps. TESLA’s CEO, Elon Musk has the vision of launching a fully autonomous TESLA for longer drive say LA to New York City while KIA’s autonomous cars version would be those vehicles which can pick you up without a driver and leave you at your destination, without a required intervention to ever take controls.

 

TRANSPORTATION NETWORKS

Lyft a transportation network company based in San Francisco, California, which operations in 300 cities in the United States have a different execution plan for self-driving cars. Their prime focus is programming the cars to take restricted routes, avoid certain weather conditions, and above all low speeds for a start.

Talking about transportation network companies, GOOGLE & UBER are not to be left behind.

Waymo – A New Way Forward, as the tagline depicts, is Google’s latest self-driving car project with a vision of giving people an easier and safer way to move around. Waymo’s technology mainly depends on of sensors and software for the detections of unexpected behaviors of pedestrians, cyclists, vehicles and possible road work from a distance up to almost two football fields. Their team of engineers is constantly making modifications to vehicles’ sensors and updating software-based off real road navigation experiences by their cars to make it safer and fully functional in complex scenarios.

UBER is using autonomous Ford Fusions cars with an array of sensors at the roof and additional sensors into the cars’ sides for Pickups and a Lidar units which use a laser to collect 1.4 million map points a second, resulting in a 360-degree image of the car’s surroundings. Cameras and a GPS system are also being used for additional intelligence. The car’s sensors receive pre-collected maps including speed limits and other generally relevant information so they can detect real-time variables. These self-driving cars detect obstacles, people, and even potholes and respond intelligently. But the bigger challenge is to tackle the unexpected circumstances and scenarios happen every day on road.

Uber’s Self-driving cars were doing just fine in Pittsburgh before one of them met a harsh high-speed car crash in Arizona last week. Although Uber grounded its autonomous fleet till the end of investigations, but the fleet is back on roads after being free from all charges. But this incident raised various safety concerns which are yet to be resolved by the engineers. 

 

SAFETY CONCERNS

Several critical questions arise with the on-going trials and test drives of driverless cars. Although the transportation network companies keep logs of each of its road tests and use that data to interpret how the cars should respond in specific circumstances. For example, the car is programmed to follow the instructions, abide by basic traffic rules i.e. follow signals and when they arrive at a four-way stop they should drive on in order of when they arrived. But what if another human-driven car fails to respect that order? It is programmed to stop if another car jumps the gun, but it should also be programmed to go if another car takes too long.

The Uber incident is a reminder of the necessity for driverless technology in the first place that Humans are awfully bad drivers. But it also highlights the fact that how much more advancement is needed for the success of self-driving cars.

Humans are still watchful of many social signs when they’re driving. By keeping eye contact with other drivers, they can read the subtle body languages and make decisions accordingly.  For example, by reading the body language of a jogger that says they are thinking about cutting across the street, the driver can make an early decision. Self-driving cars can predict the possibility that a pedestrian is about to cross the road, but the interpretation of actual social cues is yet to be achieved.

IMPACT ON FUTURE TRANSPORTATION

By Self-Driving Cars on road, overall vehicle design will change significantly. The design specifications will be very different for vehicles made specifically to move slowly around city roads only, then those for vehicles designed to travel at high speed on freeways. Infrastructure and safety specifications will also be very transformed.

The vehicle market made a huge advancement from horses to steam engines, and then internal combustion engines 100 years ago, ultimately providing the freedom to travel in the ways that could never be imagined. Self-driving vehicles have the potential to spur a similar transformation in the future.

 

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