Self-driving cars: the future of transport explained

20th Mar 2013 | 13:00

Self-driving cars: the future of transport explained

When where and how will autonomous cars work?

Humans can't be trusted behind the wheel. They misjudge distances, drive aggressively, get distracted by other passengers, and many of them talk on the phone. Is it time to get rid of them and hand their driving licences over to the cars themselves?

Self-driving cars already exist, but whether or not they become a reality depends on whether the car industry can convince us to trust a machine to drive us around. That's rather ironic, because the core reason for developing self-driving cars is to remove human error from the process, and thus have far fewer road accidents.

Taking away human control is only partly about enabling you to read a book or play on your phone while sitting in the driver's seat. It's largely about making traffic safer, smarter and faster while maximising fuel economy. Fewer people will die on the roads and urban congestion will be reduced.

It could become the ride of your life, but it's likely to have a rather quaint start. In the beginning - and we're talking about the next few years - autonomous cars will probably go no further than 'driver assistance', occasionally nudging you along when in a slow-moving traffic.

Beyond that, think highly complex systems where your car talks to both other cars and city-wide traffic management systems, navigates by itself, and gets involved in follow-my-leader tech like platooning and road trains.

Search engine-eering

Google has sparked off the current interest in driverless cars. As well as having ambitions in the connected car sphere, the search engine giant has been busily testing its own self-aware cars for a few years.

The self-driving car explained: what you need to know

Google's prototype is a Toyota Prius with built-in GPS and a 64-beam laser on its roof that builds a 3D model of the environments it drives through. Sensors in the sides of the vehicle look out for other cars and obstacles (such as people). Google reckons it will become a reality by 2018.

The driving force behind Google's experiments is proof of concept rather than universal use, but the availability of cheap sensor technology is a major factor in the driverless car going mass-market.

"Technology goes from a scarcity to a surplus," says Shawn DuBravac, the Consumer Electronics Association's chief economist and senior director of research. "Digital sensors were once scarce, but now nearly every single smartphone has a accelerometer, a gyroscope, multiple cameras and multiple degrees of measurement. Google's Driverless car drove 300,000 miles last year without a single accident, but it's just a bunch of sensors."

Meteoric rise

Cars with sensors might be new to most of us, but dash-cams are common around the world. Able to film the path of the meteor explosion over the Russian Urals in February, the dash-cams are there for insurance purposes. Similarly, cyclist in cities often wear helmet-cams to help apportion blame if there's an accident.

It's difficult to see smart cars with cameras not being used for this purpose globally, but there are issues of legality to be sorted out; if a self-driven car has an accident, who's to blame? The 'driver'/owner or the manufacturer? These questions haven't yet been thrashed out, but at least the driverless car is now gaining legal status.

Before such issues are sorted out, the technology has to be cheap enough for the mass-market, and that's the thinking behind a project called RobotCar. The brainchild of academics at Oxford University's Department of Engineering Science, the project's aim is to produce affordable self-driving car technology via 'machine learning'.

The self-driving car explained: what you need to know

Its Nissan LEAF electric test car uses sensors to figure out exactly where it is in relation to both its surroundings and other vehicles on the road. As the car is driven (by a human) it builds a 3D model, and when it's next on the same journey it can take over the wheel and partly replicate what it did the previous time, at least in terms of the route. Called Auto Drive, the system runs on an iPad and cold cost as little as £100/US$150/AU$150.

Everyone's at it. Nissan has an 'autonomous emergency steering system' that kicks in where braking alone isn't the answer, avoiding low-speed collisions with other cars and pedestrians, and high-speed crashes into the tail-end of a traffic jam.

The system uses a front-mounted radar and camera, two left and right rear radars and five laser scanners spread out across the vehicle. By 'looking' ahead, behind and to the sides, the system can predict collisions and constantly calculates in exactly which direction the vehicle needs to be driven. If the driver doesn't react quickly enough to this information on the dashboard, the car takes over.

Piloted driving

The self-driving car explained: what you need to know

Meanwhile, Audi used January's Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2013) in Las Vegas to demo its own version of piloted driving. Its prototype is able to take over the controls in road traffic, though only if requested to do so by the driver.

"The driver will always be able to decide himself when he wants assistance," said Audi CEO Rupert Stadler, who thinks that piloted driving will be feasible before 2020.

Platooning

Further in the distance is platooning. Perhaps the ultimate expression of the driverless car will be Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE), a European Commission-funded project involving Volvo that's developing intelligent transportation systems using semi-autonomous vehicles, primarily to save fuel.

A support system that automatically follows the car in front in slow-moving queues, SARTRE could be used on motorways, too. In its tests the project created a platoon of four vehicles led by a truck, all travelling at speeds of up to 90km per hour (55mph), spaced no more than four metres (13ft) apart.

The self-driving car explained: what you need to know

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"The road train is the best of two worlds. You can enjoy all the multitasking possibilities of public transportation behind the wheel of your own car," says Erik Coelingh, technical specialist at Volvo, which is also working on the self-parking car that can be abandoned at the entrance to a car park.

SARTRE has its end-game in platooning, a 'smart city' dream that's still decades away. In effect, the car that drives fastest away from a set of traffic lights will briefly dictate - in effect, control - the acceleration and braking of the cars behind it. By keeping cars in platoons the distance between them can be reduced, making way for more cars on the road, and maximising traffic flow.

To achieve this won't just take driverless cars; they'd have to be constantly exchanging data on their exact position and speed not just with each other, but with traffic lights and real-time, city-wide navigation systems. As well as having your speed controlled, you might be sent home a different way if that keeps traffic flowing.

The ultimate mobile computer

The self-driving car explained: what you need to know

Eventually the car will become an important part of the Internet of Things and thus become the ultimate mobile computer. Networking the driver to the car, to the internet and then to the traffic infrastructure seems logical since GPS navigation and online traffic updates are already available in some 'connected' vehicles.

"Being in a car that drives by itself while the driver reads a book is still quite a revolutionary thought for many people," says Marcus Rothoff, Volvo's product attribute manager for driver assistance, who thinks that boosting customer confidence in self-driving cars is crucial. "Hardly anyone thinks twice about being in an airplane that flies on autopilot."

If the trend towards in-car infotainment continues, we'll all be too busy checking Facebook and oggling Google Earth to want to drive, anyhow.

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