Driverless cars used to be the sort of thing you’d see in sci-fi films — but in 2018 they’re becoming a reality. Autonomous car technology is already being developed by the likes of Lexus, BMW and Mercedes, and we’ve even tested Tesla’s driverless Autopilot system on UK roads. Across the Atlantic, Google is developing its automated technology in the wild, and Apple is rumoured to be working with BMW on its own – probably automated – car.
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Fully-driverless tech is still at an advanced testing stage, but partially automated technology has been around for the last few years. Executive saloons like the BMW 7 Series feature automated parking, and can even be controlled remotely.
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Autonomous tech is also enjoying heavy investment around the world, especially in the UK. In 2015, the government announced new laws for testing driverless vehicles on our roads and, with them, an unprecedented £20 million investment into the technology.
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With so much investment and interest in driverless technology, it’s easy to assume that self-operating cars are imminent, but they’re much further away than we might think. Before our roads are flooded with driverless vehicles, manufacturers must tackle a range of technical and ethical challenges, and combat the biggest threat to autonomous technology: humans.
The Google Car
Autonomous vehicles rely on a range of sensors to interact with the world around them, with the Google Car prototype coming equipped with eight.
The most noticeable is the rotating roof-top LIDAR – a camera that uses an array of either 32 or 64 lasers to measure the distance between objects, building up a 3D map at a range of 200m and allowing the car to «see» hazards. The car also sports another set of “eyes”, a standard camera that points through the windscreen. This looks for nearby hazards like pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists, as well as reading road signs and detecting traffic lights. Speaking of other motorists, bumper-mounted radar, already used in intelligent cruise control, tracks other vehicles in front of and behind the car.
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Externally, the car has a rear-mounted aerial that receives geolocation information from GPS satellites, and an ultrasonic sensor on one of the rear wheels monitors the car’s movements. Internally, the car has altimeters, gyroscopes and a tachometer (a rev-counter) to give even finer measurements on the car’s position, all of which combine to give it the highly accurate data needed to operate safely.
Using these arrays, the Google Car can read the road like a human, but these sensors come with their own limitations. Autonomous cars simply replace the human eye with a camera, leaving them vulnerable to extreme sunlight, weather or even defective traffic lights. In current autonomous cars, the way this selection of pixels is analysed could be the difference between a safe journey and death.
Since Google unveiled its self-driving car, it has spun off this part of the business into a separate arm under the name Waymo. The name comes from Google’s mission to find “a new way forward in mobility.”
Many believe a connection between cars and traffic infrastructure is needed to combat this problem. “Car-to-car and car-to-infrastructure communication is essential for enabling autonomous driving,” says Christoph Reifenrath, senior manager in technology marketing of Harman’s infotainment division, who supply in-car tech to the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes.
«Car-to-infrastructure communication is essential for enabling autonomous driving.»
“For example, as your car approaches a red light, we’ll give you information. How can we provide this information in every car at every red light? There has to be a solution for that for if you want to enable autonomous driving in areas with traffic lights.”
The German automotive industry is one of the most powerful advocates of a connected car-traffic infrastructure. Earlier this week, manufacturers including Daimler, BMW and Audi paid $3.1 billion for the Nokia Here mapping service, which will be used as a platform for a connected-car environment. A joint statement released by the consortium reads:
“[Nokia] Here is laying the foundations for the next generation of mobility and location based services. For the automotive industry, this is the basis for new assistance systems and ultimately fully autonomous driving. Extremely precise digital maps will be used in combination with real-time vehicle data in order to increase road safety and to facilitate innovative new products and services.”
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To become a viable solution, these systems will be required in every vehicle, including those still used by humans. It’s likely that emergency vehicles like ambulances and police cars will continue to use human drivers, so they’ll need a method of communicating with the autonomous cars around them.
“You have to know where [an emergency vehicle] comes from and when it will be there, so the information is shared between this car and your car,” adds Reifenrath.
The human problem
Although autonomous cars will need better, more connected infrastructure to function effectively, they still face a larger, more unpredictable factor – us. Humans present problems for autonomous cars as both drivers and pedestrians, and dealing with our unpredictable behaviour represents a significant challenge for the technology.
«Humans present problems for autonomous cars as both drivers and pedestrians»
The Google Car is one of the most experienced autonomous vehicles, and its interaction with human drivers has exposed one of driverless cars’ main weaknesses. The first injury involving the Google Car wasn’t due to a fault in its system, but human-error.
Revealed by Google earlier this month, an incident in July was caused by a human driver’s failure to stop. While correctly waiting at traffic lights, Google’s self-driving car was hit by an inattentive driver and, despite its sophisticated array of sensors, there was little it could do to avoid the incident. Luckily, the accident only resulted in whiplash for a few of the passengers, but it’s a reminder that autonomous cars are at risk when surrounded by human road users.
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Google Car’s project leader Chris Urmson was one of the people involved in the accident, and his subsequent Medium post describes the event in detail. “The light was green, but traffic was backed up on the far side, so three cars, including ours, braked and came to a stop so as not to get stuck in the middle of the intersection,” he writes. “After we’d stopped, a car slammed into the back of us at 17mph – it didn’t brake at all.”
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Despite their sophisticated systems, self-driving cars currently have no plan B for human road users. Human drivers are able to interact with each other and make allowances, but also make countless, small mistakes when driving – mistakes to which current self-driving cars simply can’t adapt. Although there was little that could be done to avoid the Google Car’s latest accident, it’s a stark reminder of autonomous technology’s biggest hurdle.