We’ve already overcome our dependency on fossil fuels with the development of the electric car, so what’s next in store for the long-serving automobile? How about a car that charges while on the move? The solar car doesn’t need to stop and re-charge and instead converts sunlight to electricity. Testing of wireless communication between vehicles is also already underway in the United States. By communicating position data to other vehicles, the technology aims to reduce accidents, help with fuel consumption and control speeding. But the latest development that has piqued the interest of both the tech world and motoring enthusiasts, is the invention of the driverless car.
Google’s self-driving car
The self-driving car was the first project of the mysteriously’named Google X; an off-shoot of Google established in 2010 to develop projects that are at the cutting edge of technology. After winning the $2 million cash prize in the 2005 Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grand challenge for the creation of a successful autonomous car, Google engineer Sebastian Thrun is leading a team that has even loftier aims of bringing the technology to the masses by 2017.
There are 10 Google cars in existence at the moment. The ‘self-drive’ technology is being trialled in Audi TT, Toyota Prius and Lexus RX450h models. All the cars are easily distinguished by a ‘self-driving car’ logo on the sides and rear bumper, and the range finder mounted to the roof. The design team at Google X is confident of meeting their 2017 deadline. Although there are only a few early adopters of what may seem like Jetsons technology at present, being driven around by robotic cars is a very real possibility for this generation of drivers.
Driverless car technology
By combining several break-through technologies, Google has taken what would have been nothing more than a fanciful, sci-fi daydream and made it reality. The aptly-named Google Chauffeur can be used in any vehicle, but is predominantly being tested in electric cars. The cost of fully kitting out a car with the equipment is currently around US$150,000 but these costs should reduce as the product is refined and adapted to the mass market. The technology maps and navigates terrain by producing 3D maps of the surrounding environment with a 64-beam laser mounted to the roof. The computer system pairs the 3D scans with detailed maps and complex data models of driving technique to produce the ultimate ‘backseat driver’. The system is a self-navigating, self-driving vehicle, which is accurate to within one inch of its environment in real time, which stacks up well compared with human driver accuracy.
To date, Washington, DC along with four U.S. states; Nevada, Florida, California and most recently Michigan, have passed legislation to permit autonomous car testing. But the test cars aren’t out on roads testing themselves.
At present, a Google engineer and a driver with a perfect record are along for the ride to ensure the vehicles perform well in testing. But early indications are that technology is promising, with successful testing in bustling and difficult-to-navigate city centres, including the steep, tightly-packed streets of San Francisco.
Are driverless cars safer?
The cars are programmed to drive at legal driving speeds and the roof-mounted laser allows a safe following distance to be maintained, but this whole project begs the question; could Google cars be safer?
After all, self-driving cars are immune to the pitfalls of human emotion and distraction. They don’t suffer from road rage, don’t speed when they’re late for an appointment and always have their ‘eyes’ focused on the road.
But although we perhaps should be much more concerned about the human drivers currently on the roads, driverless cars could still make a few humans nervous. For those who are concerned, it may help to know that the only on-road accident to date in Google’s trial was caused by a human-driven vehicle that rear-ended the driverless car while it was stationary at traffic lights.
Before you get too excited, although significant progress has been achieved the technology is still very much a work in progress.
The system hasn’t yet been tested in adverse driving conditions, it still has issues identifying hazards (such as sporadically avoiding harmless objects, such as litter) and hasn’t been programmed to detect un-mapped variations, such as temporary traffic lights, or emergency services.
In May last year, Google released a version of the self-driving car that didn’t have a steering wheel or pedals. But that might be a premature step, considering many of us wouldn’t be comfortable putting our fate in the hands of a robot. A manual-override option could, perhaps ironically, put the more nervous road users at ease.