history of autonomous vehicles can be traced back to nearly 100 years ago. In
1925, inventor Francis Houdina took a 1926 Chandler and modified it with a
radio antenna capable of receiving radio signals that would control the car’s
movement. Later the same year, Houdina was able to successfully drive his
radio-controlled car through the streets of New York City with zero accidents.
Fast forward to the late
1970’s. As technology continued to advanced, developments in the area of
self-driving cars continued to make progress. Research teams experimented by
adding video cameras to vehicles. Algorithms designed to analyze the
surrounding environments allowed the cars to follow street markings while at
low speeds. This technology was improved years later when Ernst Dickmanns, a
German engineer, developed what we know as “Dynamic Vision”. This innovative
technology allowed Dickmanns’ VaMoRs (Vans outfitted with cameras, sensors and
micro-processors) to focus only on the most relevant objects on the road while
tuning out what was not necessary. A more modern version of this technology is
used in todays self-driving cars to find potential hazards.
In the early 2000s, DARPA –
The U.S. Department of Defense’s research division – encouraged engineers to
further the self-driving vehicle technology by creating a series of
competitions called DARPA Grand Challenges. These competitions kick started the
current race to achieving a fully autonomous vehicle. Perhaps the most famous
example of today’s self-driving car technology comes from Waymo, Alphabet’s
self-driving car company (Alphabet is Google’s parent company). Waymo brought
onboard engineers who had successfully completed the challenges in order to
spearhead their self-driving car initiatives. Waymo’s self-driving car fleet is
equipped with cameras, sensors, radars and GPS technology. This coupled with
data from Google Street View allows for a more precise self-navigation.
Today, many companies continue
to invest in self-driving technology. The race for the fully autonomous vehicle
continues to bring about innovation and breakthroughs.
There are three main ways of
testing autonomous technology. Perhaps the most cost-effective and safest way
is by running software simulations. This approach requires the self-driving software
to be run virtually inside of computers. Simulations can be run over and over
again allowing for the software to become smarter. Another way of testing
self-driving cars is by having them drive through internal testing tracks.
Waymo, for example, has built their own testing grounds. Here, engineers have
added roads, crosswalks, traffic lights and other features that simulate the
real world. Waymo’s driverless cars drive through these tracks and encounter unforeseen
obstacles that they need to account for. Companies are also starting to test
self-driving cars out in public. Waymo and other companies are currently
performing tests across multiple U.S. cities. Cruise Automation, General Motors
self-driving division will begin testing autonomous Chevy Bolts in New York
City – one of the most congested cities in the world. The testing will be
performed within a geofenced area in Manhattan and will require an engineer to
be in the driver’s seat in order to monitor and evaluate the car’s performance.
The continued in-house and public testing
allows companies to continue to improve self-driving technology making their
vehicles smarter and making the technology safer and more reliable.
Disadvantages of self-driving cars
Self-driving cars open up a realm of
opportunities and advantages. They have the potential to reduce traffic and the
number of road accidents by taking the human factor away from driving.
Autonomous vehicles are controlled by algorithms. These algorithms help prevent
accidents normally caused by human error. Following the previous point, with a
self-driving car a passenger no longer has to drive. This gives passengers the
opportunity to enjoy the ride or spend their commute preparing for work and
using this time to focus on other chores. Another advantage of self-driving
cars is that they can be used to transport disabled individuals. Many of these
people are not able to drive and often rely on public transportation which can
be difficult. With self-driving cars, many of these people can enjoy a
comfortable ride and no longer have to rely on public transportation.
Although self-driving cars present a
variety of new opportunities and advantages, there are disadvantages behind the
use of these vehicles. The amount of technology that is required to build
autonomous vehicles is likely to be expensive, meaning the costs will need to
be recouped through high sales prices. Technology is not flawless. Standard
cars have been hacked in the past, allowing hackers to take control of the car
away from the driver. If an autonomous vehicle was to be hacked, there will be
less of an opportunity for a passenger to correct any errors.
Self-driving vehicles pose a
lot of questions about our future. How will autonomous vehicles affect our
society? What will our cities look like? Will people even own cars or will a
complex network of self-driving cars pick us up wherever and whenever we need
them? Autonomous vehicles will dramatically change our cities’ infrastructure
and the way we treat transportation.
A lot of infrastructure is dedicated for
parking lots. Having a network of autonomous cars would change the way we think
about these storing areas. People would be picked up and dropped off at their
desired locations with no need to park vehicles. Autonomous cars could be
stored at strategic locations inside and outside a city. This would
dramatically open up our cities for more improvements and free space.
We can take this a step further. In the
later future, no one would own a car – at least, not in the sense we see it. We
can already see this happen with ride-hailing services such as Lyft and Uber.
In the future, you would be picked up and dropped off by different self-driving
cars. They would know your schedule, take you to work and be available whenever
you need them.
Cars will also evolve aesthetically.
Since autonomous vehicles do not need a driver, car manufacturers can focus on
interior designs. The inside of cars will be tailored to the occupants; adding
desks for the hard working executive, screens for the movie fans, and even beds
for people who want to get a five-minute nap before getting work.