Since the beginning of industrial revolution, people always dreamed of newer and better machines doing tasks that could not be done at the time. When we first got introduced to radio, we wondered if one day we would be able to also see those people speaking on the radio too. When we first saw computers as big as a room, we wondered if one day they would be doing other things and might be smaller, faster and smarter. As for cars, we thought about flying cars and self driving cars, when we saw the first automobiles on the streets. Flying cars might still be a long way off, because there are still some breakthroughs needed in science, but for robotic cars the picture is different as all scientific advances for its technology is here. They are coming our way for sure, and with full speed! Already, limited autonomous operation is being introduced in the next few years by major manufacturers. It is just a matter of refining the technology we have and putting it into commercial use. In fact, just recently Intel CTO stated that the driverless cars might be available within 10 years.
Let’s have a look at when it started first and then we will move on to how they work, what we have today, what is coming and we will analyze its benefits and make some predictions.
• History of Autonomous Cars
The first autonomous driving ever achieved was around 10000 B.C., when the first horse rider got onto a horse’s back and rode on it without directing it to any direction. Although this technology rarely achieved the goal of arriving at a target destination, for 11980 years, this was the only form of autonomous driving humankind could get.
In 1980 A.D., things started to change however… 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, Mercedes Benz team achieved a 95% autonomous driving on a trip of 1600 km in Europe. In 2001, US Government funded projects such as Demo I, II and II, 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, which hosted many different competing teams 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 was performing harder tasks to achieve. Currently, as of beginning of 2013, we have autonomous cars, although still in experimental and development stage, that have driven autonomously for hundreds of thousands of miles in total, and the technology is starting to show up in consumer market with systems such as improved cruise control, automated parking, low speed autonomous driving, which are all transitional steps towards a full autonomy in driving.
• How do autonomous cars work
So far, we have already achieved some autonomy and the following are already being used in our cars.
The systems that were already in use:
Cruise Control: One of the first technologies towards the autonomous direction was the 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 to spin and fall out of control.
The systems that are just starting to be used now or 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 it, and is much more complicated in comparison to the first two we mentioned above. The car’s direction, speed, the contact pressure between the road and the wheels are constantly monitored and 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, which is almost always better and more optimized than a human driver might be able to do. 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 tighten the seat belts, in a very short time, even before the driver has the 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 the regular cruise control, using radar sensor placed in front of the car, the system can sense the car in front and will adjust the speed accordingly, in order to maintain a safe distance between two cars.
Self Parking Systems: One system that are 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 forward step in our journey towards 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 experimental stage and being tested as described above under the history of autonomous cars section. So how do autonomous cars work?
Autonomous cars need to do basically 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 what it is doing with respect to that defined map – here defined means that the car “knows” the meaning of the objects in that map. Of course the map we are talking about here, and the relative position of the car versus that map is dynamic and being continuously updated. In order to come up with 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 the lanes and backup assistance, but as the image processing software gets more developed, 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 for determining a car’s location by getting input from satellites.
Accelerometer: Help 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 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 cost about $70,000. The information taken from these measurements are combined with the information coming from cameras and the radar in order to create a detailed map of surrounding. 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
Some of the benefits of self driving cars might look obvious to anyone who has even a little idea about technology, but let’s cover it with some facts, figures and in more detail to get a better picture, including predictions for the future.
Reduced Accidents: Each year, an estimated number of 1.3 Million people die in traffic accidents, which is the 10th leading cause of all 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 the unmanned cars are allowed for general use, a lot of safety measures will be in place in addition to a more improved technology than today, so that the “human error” will not just be replaced by the “machine error”. Even if there are rare machine errors and they cause deaths or injuries, the total will be much less in numbers, in comparison to what we are seeing today. Therefore, I suspect that when a machine error causes accident, this will not be a cause to disallow the whole autonomous driving concept, because as a society we will see that we are still benefiting in the end, if we consider the greatly reduced death numbers. This is similar to flying by airplanes, where we suffer from accidents from time to time, which 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 more overweigh the occasional, tragic losses we suffer. Statistically flying is the safest way to transport actually, if you think in terms of the number of passengers carried versus the losses. When autonomous cars arrive, even this might change. To be able to transport ourselves safely is becoming always easier to achieve for us, as we advance our technology, means of building and manufacturing things, and experiences, and eventually the death and injury rates because of transporting ourselves will converge to very, very low rates. Autonomous driving is just a natural and logical step to that, just as everything becoming more and more automated, have more information in it than 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 is lost between two cars. Multiply this by the number of all the cars on the highway. You reach to a very large number in terms of delayed traffic. Plus humans need more 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, and this 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 that 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 and they will very easily be placed (may be even by spraying at some point) on every physical thing we can think of, which leads to further improvement of the communication process, increasing the safety and efficiency of driving. (By the way, the 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 needed to find a parking place before, 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 that first comes to mind 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 who.
Less Cars and Lower Costs: Overall, there will be 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, which means less cars will be needed, no taxi drivers needing to make money, and it will also save on fuel overall, as the weight of an unnecessary passenger will go away and less cars operate on the road.
Another contributing factor is that the people will be able to lend, rent and borrow cars easier, as the cars can just drive where they are needed. At present, most of the time our cars just wait for us uselessly, occupying parking space. But imagine them being able to drive and carry others instead of just waiting for us. This will not happen always, still you might want to keep your car just for yourself but it will happen anyway and we are talking about average here. 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 less number of cars. Today even if you wanted to lend your car to someone, 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 where you are, they 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 your car. Just enter your credentials by a phone app or on the internet, and it will start your car for you through its internet connection and you 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, which basically operates for much longer hours than a regular cab as it has no driver to wait for when he sleeps or eats, which means less taxi on the road also. The details of the whole system will naturally smooth itself out in time of course but you get the point.
When talking about less number of cars, we should not forget the market forces too however, in other words, if the number of cars drops too much, then the price for borrowing 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 unnecessary number of cars on the roads than we need totally as nothing is still free and also think about the cost of registration, maintenance and insurance which will still be in place.
You will have daily or monthly tickets for car usage such as metrocard or train or bus pass of today, where the local municipality or a local taxi or rental car company can provide for you. Just swipe your metrocard or “autocard” when the car arrives. For example, Avis already invested in the concept, buying Zipcar for nearly $500 M as of Jan-2013, which provides car sharing services as described in here, without the automonous cars – yet- of course. When the technology arrives, the infrastructure is already in place.
So the conclusion is: less cars, 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). Just like excavating a foundation pit in the past by hand, versus using the big excavators today (even they will be without operators, but that will come definitely after autonomous cars, as in that case the AI must replace a skilled operator who used to perform much more complicated tasks in addition to what a regular car driver does)
Improved transportation of goods: Autonomous cars can even be sent to do the tasks that will not need to carry passengers at all, but just goods. Someone will be able to order goods online or by phone and then just send his car to pick it up, if she doesn’t want to wait for delivery or pay for shipping, where the seller will just load the goods into the car for pickup. Or the seller might do the delivery, like today, but as there are no more drivers needed, the shipping cost will decrease. So the retail and shipping industries will be impacted also. In many cases when we go shopping, we drive to a retail shop, just to load the goods into our car and bring it home, unless we want to see or do something inside. Though when we go there, often we do or buy something else than we originally planned for. Eliminating all this and just sending your car to pickup things will therefore have effects on the retail industry. It will also mean much free time for you at home, doing more useful things like watching celebrity magazine shows and think about why some famous pop singer’s marriage lasted for just 6 days.
Impacts on economy: Fear not, autonomous cars do not mean we are loosing jobs to robots. As always happened since industrial revolution, each automation creates higher quality and more information based jobs even if it eliminates some old professions. Just like the industrial revolution replaced almost all people working in the farms with machines, who started doing something else, other professions which have been created by the new technologies themselves. For instance in this case, we will not have any taxi drivers anymore, but more people will be needed to create and manage the software and the process.
Less cars mean less auto mechanics of course. There is no way around it. Robot cars make less accidents too, and they drive less abusively and in an optimum way, which means less repair jobs per car also, except the regular maintenance jobs needed. Add to this fact that our ability of manufacturing of 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 around 30%-40% decrease in the number of auto mechanic shops can be expected by the time autonomous cars become mainstream and that trend will continue. Well less auto mechanic shops mean a huge decrease in the automotive parts and accessories economy also. This will have a huge impact on the economy like a domino effect, as automotive industry is one of the locomotive industries of the economy, affecting so many other industries. But again, all these lost jobs and economy due to increased efficiency of car transportation, will be compensated by the new professions created by the new technology. I do not think that the impact will be negative as it never happened that way since the beginning of industrial revolution. As always, effort based jobs will just be replaced with intelligence and information based jobs.
Overall, if you think about all these benefits counted above, 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 less number of 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 just 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 the 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:
This section is being written
This section is being written
• Legal Issues
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 also means you do not have to go to the repair shop anymore. Your car will automatically go there when it needs to. I am suspecting that by the time we have widespread use of autonomous cars, auto mechanics will also be in a transition phase of loosing their jobs to robots, so this whole maintenance process will look much more automated but that’s another subject.
Nevada, Florida and California have already passed laws about driverless cars, as of January 2013. The laws require the motor vehicle department to establish the 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 communicates 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 thing to consider when comparing the autonomous systems versus the manually driven system is the elimination of the 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 less number of mistakes in comparison to the human drivers, but there will be some points in time that using an automated system will not be as good as a human making judgement with his common sense. All these different scenarios will needed to be sorted out before the driverless technology will be allowed but as we argued above, even with occasional possible glitches, the overall benefits will far overweigh the costs.