One of the most interesting and popular topics in the world today is autonomous vehicles; cars that can safely drive, navigate and park all on their own.
Instead of watching the road ahead, we’ll soon spend our driving time watching interactive LCD screens inside the vehicle.
But how do they work? How do they drive safely and avoid accidents? And when will you be able to go out and buy one?
In this article, we’re going to cover all of this and more.
How do driverless cars see the world?
The first thing you realize when learning about automated vehicles is that the ‘human’ method of driving is not very efficient.
Human beings have limited vision and hearing, combined with unreliable reaction times. We typically keep our eyes fixed directly on the road ahead – relying on sound, mirrors and reflexes to assist us.
Automated vehicles use a complex series of lasers, sensors, light-detection devices and radar units to build a complete 3D, 360-degree view of the vehicle and the environment around it. This data, combined with powerful Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems within the car is used to drive and navigate under the car’s own control.
We become very familiar with the roads in our own neighborhoods. If something suddenly changes, or if there is an obstruction on the road – we notice straight away.
Automated vehicles work in much the same way. Only better.
Using GPS, map and road data, self-driving cars have a continuous picture of exactly what the surrounding environment should look like. They then use vehicle sensors and radar systems to detect any changes or hazards in the area – and adjust accordingly.
Car manufacturers have already logged hundreds of millions of miles of driving data to improve self-driving functions. These test cars often feature a series of external super-bright LEDs and LCD screens to let everybody know they are automated testing vehicles. In the future, autonomous vehicles may utilize external OLED displays to help protect pedestrians.
This collected real-world driving data is also used in computer simulations to accelerate the AI-learning process.
In short: the more miles automated vehicles cover, the better they get at driving.
We can’t always say the same for human drivers.
Will the human driver become the odd man out?
During the process of cars learning to think and drive by themselves, where does the human driver fit into all of this?
In-car LCD touch screens, colorful LED displays and interactive Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs) will provide vehicle occupants with constant information about what the car is doing, and the environment around it.
As self-driving technology improves, the human component will shift from driver to observer – and eventually to merely a passenger.
We currently think of driving in terms of using a steering wheel and foot pedals. In the future, we’ll spend our time using the internet via interactive LCD screens and watching movies and TV on in-car entertainment systems.
We’ll no longer need to think about what the car is doing unless prompted.
Driving will no longer be a chore. For many people, it will actually become relaxing downtime. It will be just like flying first class on a plane.
5 degrees of automation: defining driverless cars
There are classification ratings – known as ‘SAE’ levels – used to categorize driverless cars. This ranges from level 1 (minimal automation) up to level 5 (complete automation).
Here is a brief rundown of the 5 levels:
SAE Level 1: Basic automation featuring one single driver-assist function. This may include steering, speed or braking control. The car is only capable of a single specific task, and the driver retains control of the vehicle at all times.
SAE Level 2: The vehicle can control its own steering and acceleration in order to perform a specific task – such as parking assistance. As with level 1, the driver must still retain complete control.
SAE Level 3: The vehicle can now detect the environment around in and can perform functions such as overtaking slower vehicles and navigating on highways. The driver must be ready to take manual control of the vehicle at any time. SAE level 3 vehicles generally feature multiple interactive LCD displays and interfaces.
SAE Level 4: The vehicle is now able to steer, navigate and make decisions by itself. Unlike level 3, it is also able to take emergency measures without driver input. There still remains the ability for the driver to take manual control in dangerous situations.
SAE Level 5: The end-goal of driverless cars – complete automation requiring no human input. SAE level 5 vehicles can navigate, make decisions, and take emergency measures completely on their own. SAE level 5 vehicles will no longer feature a steering wheel or manual controls.
We are starting to see vehicles on the road with SAE level 3 automation. They are able to perform some of their own driving and navigation – provided the human driver is ready to take over whenever prompted.
The biggest leap is moving from SAE level 3 to 4 – which is when vehicles will truly start to think and drive without driver input.
The future of driverless vehicles
To even a casual observer, it’s clear that driverless vehicles are the future of motoring.
As vehicle technology and AI software continues to improve, it won’t be long before automated vehicles are far safer (and more efficient) than even the safest human driver.
Completely automated vehicles are projected to start hitting the roads as soon as 2021.
Within the next decade, we may see a scenario when manual control of a car will not only be discouraged – it will actually become illegal.
We don’t know exactly what the driverless future will look like yet. But one thing is certain – it will be here before we know it.