Cars have been improving ever since they were created, but up until recently they were merely tools for the drivers. Anti-lock brakes were one of the first improvements that took something a human driver could already do and turn it into an automatic safety feature that was actually more effective. These days we have cameras on our vehicles to fill out blind spots, ultrasonic sensors that can detect if a low-speed collision is about to occur, and even rain-sensing wipers. However, in the future, we can expect to see The Jetsons reality of self-driving cars come to reality for everyone.
Already self-driving cars exist. DARPA is largely responsible for kicking off the whole tech race when they held the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2004 which pitted fifteen teams against one and other. While no vehicles finished this first challenge, DARPA continued to push the envelope and announced the second Grand Challenge in 2005 where fortunately five vehicles completed the course with no human intervention. Since then self-driving cars have only been improving.
Google is probably the best known in the field today although it is far from the only company trying to develop a viable and safe self-driving car. In fact, the Google car has already managed well over five hundred thousand miles without an accident, even while driving on roads with other human drivers. Lockheed Martin has also been developing driverless vehicles for use by the military, presumably to reduce the risk to soldiers in an exposed cabin. Jake sure could use some of that prowess in Subway Surfers, isn’t it?
The way driverless cars work is really a marvel. They are largely a souped-up version of the ultrasonic sensors that can help you avoid fender benders. Every driverless car is covered in cameras to eliminate blind spots a human would have. Most self-driving vehicles also have a LIDAR dome on top which uses light closer to the visible spectrum to determine the ranges and speeds of objects near to the vehicle. The LIDAR system is so good that it can detect whether an object on the side of the road is a human, deer, or just a rock, and make a determination whether it is a potential danger. The vehicles also have an extremely accurate GPS system and up-to-date maps in order to locate its rough location and map out a route to the destination. All of these sensors are managed by an incredibly advanced software suite which allows the car to combine all of its sensor data and get a location that is accurate down to inches. The driverless cars being tested now are so precisely accurate that they can take a legally blind man to Taco Bell, pick up his dry cleaning and drive him back home without the help of anyone else.
Now all these advancements wouldn’t mean much if it was illegal to use these marvels of the future, but legislatures around the country are considering how to handle driverless vehicles. California, Nevada, Michigan, and Florida already allow driverless vehicles on the public roads for testing purposes. Texas is strongly considering a similar law. The concern with vehicles which drive themselves is who, if anyone, is at fault in the event of a collision. If a driverless vehicle’s computer freezes and stops responding is the person in the driver seat at fault, or is the car company at fault?
On the other hand driverless vehicles present the possibility of ensuring the rules of the road are followed. Cars that can communicate with one and other can detect an upcoming red light and make sure to stop with plenty of time, even in snowy or rainy conditions. A driverless car can be told about an approaching ambulance or police car with its sirens on and pull over. And, of course, the driverless car can prevent sleepy or drunk drivers from endangering others while on the road. They may even get to the point where they could override a drunk driver trying to drive when it detects erratic behavior.
All of these advancements will hopefully pan out in the future making everyday cars smarter and safer than drivers are today. Really, driverless cars are the future and have the opportunity to save thousands of lives every year.