Driverless cars are the sort of thing you read about in sci-fi comics – but now they’re a reality. So much so that every major car manufacturer is now investing big moolah to explore and develop autonomous cars.
For decades, fascinating advancement in auto technology meant an improvement in the realm of mechanical engineering that revolved around making vehicles faster, lighter, safer, more comfortable, and more aerodynamic.
However, Elon Musk’s Tesla changed the game by introducing a ‘ludicrous’ car of the future in the present.
While Tesla’s electric powered cars made for a profound shift in the mode of propulsion, their most recent advancement to transform the transportation system includes a driverless Autopilot system.
However, Tesla is not the only player in this field. Waymo, Google’s spin-off company that emerged from the tech giant’s self-driving car project, recently started a commercial autonomous car service in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona.
Tech startups and businesses aside, big-league auto players such as BMW, Lexus, Mercedes Benz, Audi, Toyota, Uber, General Motors, to name a few, are all dipping their toes into making autonomous cars a commercial reality.
And they’re right to do so. After all, driverless tech is growing at a remarkable pace of 16 percent a year and is expected to be worth £900 billion globally by 2025!
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With such a speedy and lucrative future ahead of this technology, it’s time to learn everything about autonomous cars.
What Are Autonomous Cars?
Autonomous cars, also known as self-driving vehicles or driverless cars, are cars or trucks that do not require human input or driver to take control of the vehicle in order to operate them safely.
Autonomous cars include ultra-high-end technology that combines proximity sensors and smart AI-powered software to safely control, navigate, and drive the vehicle without requiring a human to do anything.
Now, the concept of a vehicle safely driving or moving by itself has been a reality since quite some time.
Planes have autopilot systems that take complete control from the human pilot to fly at set altitudes and even land on their own.
Similarly, cars have radar guided-cruise control and semi-autonomous modes where the car senses the distance from the car in front of it and automatically slow down or speeds up whilst observing the white lines on motorways to observe lane discipline.
Many luxury cars today are equipped with auto park assist where the car detects the parking spot and takes control from the driver to park itself. All this without a human input!
However, building fully autonomous cars is an upheaving challenge for automakers considering the elements of safety and sheer technological marvel required to achieve this feat.
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How Do Autonomous Car Work?
Technology is the main driver of autonomous cars.
Typically speaking, sensors mounted around the car monitor the position of vehicles nearby while cameras detect road signs, white line lane separators, traffic lights, pedestrians, and other obstacles.
However, the functioning of fully autonomous cars or self-driving cars is possible today due to the existence of the following technologies:
Sensors make autonomous cars a reality.
Autonomous cars use Lidar sensors and other IoT sensors for blind-spot monitoring, forward collision warning, radar, camera, and ultrasonic inputs.
This enables autonomous cars capable of navigating and perceiving things without the requirement of human input or control.
Lidar sensors or “Light detection and ranging” devices are dotted around the car to detect the edges of roads and to identify lane markings.
This is done by bouncing high-frequency pulses of light off the car’s surroundings.
Lidar is also used to alert the car from other cars, pedestrians, nearby objects, and bicyclists.
Ultrasonic sensors fitted in the wheels help the car to detect the precise position of the car in relation to the curb or any other vehicles to enable automatic parking.
2. Software and Computing
Autonomous cars heavily rely on cloud computing to process vital information such as traffic data, maps, the position of adjacent cars, pedestrians and objects, weather, and road conditions among other factors.
This helps the underlying brain of the car, the AI software to learn along the way as it monitors surroundings better.
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This nifty cloud computing software empowers the car to be driven without the need of a human driver as the software constantly learns and makes informed decisions based on the input it picks up in real time.
This means, theoretically, autonomous cars must be connected to the internet at all times.
3. Data Learning and Algorithms
The sensors and software come together in a majestic alliance to make autonomous cars a possibility.
However, as a result of so much tech, the car generates a chunk of valuable data that needs to be analyzed for better implementation and to improve road safety.
Data learning and control algorithms make for a complex part of autonomous cars as they determine the next step of improvement.
Any mistake in gathering and learning data can result in fatal accidents or unparalleled success.
Most autonomous cars are powered with artificial intelligence software that learns, compare, and constantly track surroundings.
This makes the car better equipped with tricky situations and get a sense of the world outside. And all this happens in real time or at least it’s supposed to.
Google and Tesla Lead The Way For Autonomous Cars
Google’s Self Driving Technology
Google has been exploring and implementing self-driving technology since quite a while now.
In fact, their ideology of ‘a new way forward in mobility’ is what gave birth to Waymo.
Waymo has begun relying on machine learning systems that learn the behavior of various external factors by persistently and seamlessly analyzing vast amounts of data collected by the LIDAR sensors.
This data is then used to unravel the country’s traffic conditions and roadways in order to drive the car without any human control.
In fact, Waymo is using a system that studies hundreds and thousands of photos of people walking or running across or near roads to identify pedestrian intensity and behavior.
A central (backend) computer collates all this data and analyses all the data collected from the various sensors to finally enable the car to steer, accelerate, and brake depending on where it is, what condition it is, and what surrounds it.
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Tesla’s Autopilot Technology
As effective and nifty as Google’s self-driving technology is, Tesla’s Autopilot (and subsequently Enhanced Autopilot) system has emerged as quite the leader in the self-driving technology space.
All of Tesla’s road-going cars are equipped with Autopilot technology.
Tesla’s autopilot uses eight surround cameras and twelve ultrasonic sensors to complement this vision.
Together, this provides 360-degree visibility and up to 250 meters of range.
These high-tech cameras and sensors view, collect, and analyze data that the vehicle picks up along the way.
Using what is called ‘computer vision’, the vehicle then interprets this information and makes decisions based on it.
Tesla has updated the onboard computer that now has over 40 times the computing power over the previous computer.
The new generation computer runs the new Tesla-developed neural net for enhanced vision, sonar and radar processing.
In the background, Tesla’s EVs collect real-time data (‘shadow mode’ silently observes conditions) from around the world to enable its AI algorithms to better manage and study different roads and traffic conditions.
All this tech wizardry means your Tesla, in autonomous mode, will match speed to traffic conditions, maintain lane discipline, switch lanes automatically, transition from one freeway to another, exit the freeway as the car near it’s set destination, self-park when near a parking spot, and even be summoned to and from your garage.
Although this self-driving and fully autonomous driving technology is being sold commercially in all Tesla cars, Tesla suggests that active driver supervision is required.
Safety Concerns Regarding Autonomous Cars
Technology and safety experts suggest that autonomous cars will make road transportation safer since most accidents take place due to human error.
The idea is that software and sensors will prove to be less error-prone than humans.
However, cybersecurity and the sheer implementation of autonomous driving has raised concerns about road safety.
Tesla’s Autopilot system, although brilliant, has been the cause of several high-profile crashes where Autopilot was active.
Towards this, the Eon Musk headed EV manufacturer has started releasing quarterly crash statistics.
“In the 1st quarter of 2019, we registered one accident for every 2.87 million miles driven in which drivers had Autopilot engaged,” the automaker has claimed.
“For those driving without Autopilot, we registered one accident for every 1.76 million miles driven.
By comparison, NHTSA’s (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) most recent data shows that in the United States there is an automobile crash every 436,000 miles” They further added.
It’s only a matter of time where human drivers will be replaced with cars that drive themselves.
Having said that, there is a long way to go when it comes to implementing fully autonomous cars that won’t require human supervision.