Last month, Sergey Brin promised that Google’s autonomous cars will go mass market within 5 years.
This might sound like an extremely bold claim. However when you consider that Google’s self driving cars have already racked up over 300,000 miles of driving without a single accident. That’s right. Pretty incredible achievement.
Car makers and enthusiasts have long been looking at autonomous driving technology as the next frontier. It provides an opportunity for exciting R&D for them and creates a whole new range of products and car specs for buyers to get excited about, but more important are the safety implications.
A lot of the research and development around self driving cars focuses on making the vehicles “crashless”, which involves modifying the cars to react to impending collisions, and do their best to avoid them. Sensors detect obstacles ahead and alert the driver (a feature common in cars for many years) but if the driver fails to react the car takes over and swerves to avoid crashing. Obviously a car swerving itself around roads could be very dangerous so car makers have programmed the systems to monitor the surroundings, such as oncoming traffic in the next lane and then judge which will be the least dangerous path.
BMW ConnectedDrive Connect
BMW announced a system of this type – ConnectedDrive Connect – last year. It is a semi-autonomous driving system, in that it does not replace a driver, but it has sensors and an intelligent computer which enhance safety and the overall driving experience. It is fitted with four types of sensor: a camera, radar, laser scanners and ultrasound distance sensors. These technologies combine to let it detect and monitor traffic up to 50 metres ahead, as well as vehicles in adjacent lanes. It is reacts to downhill slopes, tight turns, and even detects if the car in front of you is slowing you down and changes lanes. The perfect BMW experience.
Volvo and SARTRE
This year, Volvo have released videos of their self-driving car. Volvo worked with the SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) Project in Europe, which research and developed “platooning” technology for road use. This involves a road train or platoon leading other vehicles. When other vehicles begin to follow the platoon an automatic system takes over and the driver can sit back and be led along. The effect of the traffic moving together reduces changes in speed and increases fuel economy, but it also reduces opportunities for crashes, as the vehicles are working together.
Volvo are now looking at ways to incorporate the findings and technology into their designs and become a leader in the autonomous car market of the future.
While the combination of technologies involved in self-driving cars is complex and sensitive, this will not be the greatest challenge car manufacturers face. The most important factor in making these cars a success is gaining the trust of the consumers. Many would assume that taking control away from a person would increase the danger, as a computer is not able to judge the nuances of a situation. However human beings reacting to potential crashes do so in a split second, with emotion taking over, and usually with little to no experience of similar situations on which to base their actions. A common crash reaction which driving instructors try to get students to overcome is to simply take your hands off the wheel in fright.
A computer is able to make a rational judgement about which is the least dangerous response, and takes the pressure off the driver.
One of the major things to consider when autonomous cars come to market is how it might effect insurance policies and liability in the event of an accident. On the one hand, car manufacturers believe that the features will increase safety which should see policies reduce, however insurers might be wary of new technologies and of the driver’s ability to adapt, so premiums might rise until the effects are proven. Additionally, there is the potential for manufacturers to be held liable if one of these vehicles is involved in a collision, so there might have to be some sort of waiver to sign to claim ultimate responsibility for the vehicle when you buy it.
What will ultimately happen is that these technologies will come in slowly. We already have some in cars, and more will likely be introduced over time to get the world used to self driving features.