By Steve Morris, 9 Oct 2012
If your computer has ever crashed, you may be more than a little nervous about the idea of a computer-driven car. Yet self-driving cars are already a reality, and as of September 2012, they are legal on roads in California, although a human driver must still be present in the car just in case things go wrong.
Radar, video cameras & sensors
Autonomous cars use front-mounted radar, video cameras and other sensors positioned around the sides and rear of the car to detect its surroundings. A computer inside the car creates a model of the car's environment, including fixed obstacles and other vehicles or pedestrians, and works out how to drive the car safely to its destination. This is SatNav on steroids.
It seems incredible that a computer could be able to drive a car safely. This is exactly the kind of problem that humans are good at - monitoring a lot of complex data and responding to it intuitively. And yet even humans find driving a challenge, which is why we have rigorous driving tests for new drivers. For a computer to handle this amount of complexity in a safe way seems amazing. It isn't like a game of chess with fixed rules and a grid of possible positions.
One of the companies at the forefront of driverless cars is Google. You might be thinking, doesn't Google just make search results? Of course it does, but it also has Google Maps, which could be handy for getting around, and in fact Google has plenty of cash to buy up smaller companies engaged in interesting areas of research. In fact, both Google Maps and Android were acquired from small start-up companies.
Google has been testing autonomous cars in Nevada and have driven more than 300,000 miles do far. There haven't been any accidents with the computers in control, although one car did crash when a human driver took over. 300,000 miles is equivalent to about 30 years of driving by the average UK driver, so by now these Google cars should have accumulated a pretty good no-claims bonus.
Benefits - safety first
OK, so this is an impressive set of results, but what's the point? If you're like me, you might actually enjoy driving. Is a computer-controlled car just for people who like the idea of a chauffeur but can't afford one?
According to Google, the main advantage is safety. The claim is that self-driven cars are safer than human-driven ones. That's a claim that still needs to be proven, but if it turns out to be true, then autonomous cars would save lives. If they did that, then pressure would mount for all cars to be computer-driven and it might even become illegal for a human to drive a car, as it could be a danger to others.
It's possible then that the days when you'll be allowed to drive a car are coming to an end. That would be a shame in many ways. But if it saves lives then the argument is clear. Frustrated ex-drivers will have to find some other way of having fun - perhaps off-road - and we can all settle down to a quiet drive to work enjoying some other activity on the way.
A radical transport future
There are other potential advantages too. More people would be able to drive, including those who are currently too young, too old, disabled, or just really bad drivers. Also, autonomous cars might use the road space more efficiently, enabling a higher density of cars and avoiding traffic jams. Quaintly archaic traffic lights and lines painted on the tarmac would be replaced by high-tech sensors and communication systems.
An even more radical idea is that self-driving cars could operate like taxis, picking people up and dropping them off at their destination before heading off to collect their next passenger. There would be no more need for parking spaces and no need to own a car. This would dramatically reduce the cost of personal transport.
Google predicts that self-driving cars might become available to the public within a few years. Google employees are already beta-testing them. GM’s Cadillac division expects to produce mass-market partially-autonomous cars by 2015. Volvo, BMW and Audi are also working towards making such cars commercially available. If they do, and they work as promised, cutting road deaths significantly, then we might all be not-driving one by 2030.
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