Jul 8
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Self-driving cars are cars which don’t require a driver and which can drive themselves autonomously from one location to another. Although the principle of self-driving cars has already been proven to work, there’s still a long way to go before they become available commercially.

Several cars are already on the market that can park themselves, once they are positioned close to a parking space that is, and leading car manufacturers like Mercedes, Audi and Ford have been developing prototypes of self-driving cars for several years. Successful autonomous driving trials on public roads include Google’s self-driving car in California and Mercedes’ S500 Intelligent Drive research vehicle which drove autonomously for 62 miles from Mannheim to Pforzheim in Germany in August 2013, thus proving the basic concept of self-driving cars.

But the real challenge comes when the vehicles have to make all their own decisions to control the car safely without any human intervention, for every driving condition, while complying with the law. Unlike driverless trains (such as airport shuttles which ferry passengers between terminals), driverless cars don’t have such a tightly defined operating environment with railway tracks, low speed limits and fixed points of departure and arrival. Self-driving cars will have to deal with a diverse and unpredictable driving environment including unknown or poorly mapped roads, varying road conditions, cyclists and other road users, random external events like pedestrians unexpectedly crossing the road, or simply other drivers who may have a total disregard for correct driving procedure and the law.

Connected cars with car-to-car and X-to-car communications will bring further advances in car safety systems. Driver assist applications are being developed which help drivers keep a safe distance on motorways, provide warnings when changing lanes, and even when approaching traffic accidents. Cloud based management platforms with data analytics will gather and correlate information from multiple sources including other cars and roadside traffic monitoring systems. This information will help on-board navigation systems in the vehicle to be aware of dangers in the near vicinity, perhaps when approaching a concealed junction, enabling autonomous decisions to be made to avoid collisions. All this will certainly help to make the driverless car one step closer to reality.

The US National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) has defined a 4 level definition of autonomous vehicles from Level 1; Function Specific Automation such as stability control and anti-skid braking to Level 4; full self-driving automation without the need for a driver.

But there are still a number of hurdles to overcome before we see driverless (Level 4) cars on the road, relating to safety, ethical, legal and commercial aspects, particularly for urban driving where decision making by the driverless vehicle becomes significantly more complex.

It seems only a matter of time before we see these cars on the roads, helping to reduce motorway congestion and accident rates but according to some reports, the public are unlikely to see commercially available production cars with full Level 4 automation within the next 10-20 years. There are many good arguments for having self-driving cars, not least because ultimately, machines will probably make a safer job of driving than human beings!

See also:

Two self-driving cars avoid each other on Californian roads, (July 2015) Alex Hern, The Guardian

Google’s Self-Driving Cars Take The Safe Road To Austin, (July 2015) Drew Olanoff, Tech Crunch

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