There is a strong push for self-driving autonomous cars sweeping the auto industry. It’s an interesting mix of competing companies merging with both the traditional car brands and the tech industry. The overriding assumption is that taking the driver out of the transportation equation is better for safety and the environment than human involvement in the operation of the vehicle.
Full disclosure right up front: I am not a fan of the idea of a car driving me rather than me driving the car. You see, the reason I fell in love with cars in the first place is rooted in the fact that I love to drive and want to stay connected to the road. And yes, I prefer a manual transmission over an automatic. The idea of climbing in a vehicle and telling HAL 9000 (reference from 2001: A Space Odyssey) where I want to go doesn’t have much appeal to me.
That said, I do like many of the technological advancements that are making self driving cars possible. They can contribute to both safety and efficiency. My favorite of those currently available is adaptive cruise control. With this technology the vehicle maintains a safe distance from the car or truck in front of you when the cruise control is activated. Most allow the driver to set the distance or buffer the car will follow. If you have the cruise control set on 65 and close on a semi that is doing 60 up a grade, the car will automatically slow to the speed of the truck in front of you. If you pull out to pass, your car will accelerate back up to the preset 65 mph speed if no other slower vehicles are ahead. Adaptive cruise control is becoming more and more common and works quite well.
Forward-facing radar is commonly used and sometimes laser and multiple video cameras as well to judge distance and closing speed. This technology can also safely bring the vehicle to a complete stop when approaching a stopped vehicle or other fixed obstruction. Automatic braking technology can be a life saver if a driver is distracted, falls asleep, or is otherwise incapacitated. And to think that is wasn’t all that long ago that antilock braking was the latest innovation, and now it is mainstream!
True autonomous cars, however, must have input from many other sources to know exactly what is happening all around the vehicle. Sensors to the side, for example, are used in modern lane detection and lane change anti-collision systems. These detect objects to the side of the vehicle and some read lane markings on the road. Most give an audible alert first to get the driver’s attention, but some will actually pulse the steering wheel if they think the situation is urgent. Vehicles currently use some of the same equipment to allow production vehicles to park with little driver input other than engaging the system.
A self-driving car needs to sense conditions 360 degrees around its perimeter. Multiple radars, sensors, lasers, GPS, and cameras must all work together for complete situational awareness. It’s a very complex business when you add in the ability to read traffic signals, watch for pedestrians, motorcycles, bicycles, etc. Car-to-car communication is also a key element in making this all work together.
Naturally, this doesn’t come without additional complexity and expense. I look for a future with vehicles that will always have a steering wheel in front of me and at least two pedals at my feet, though three would be better.