Where is My Robot Car?

One of my favorite driverless cars is the “Johnny Cab” featured in Total Recall. The advanced artificial intelligence of the driving car is manifest in a unformed, old-school cabbie mannequin. While the car can navigate busy streets without issue, it is perplexed by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s panicked request to “just drive.” Autonomous cars appear throughout science fiction movies such as Timecop, Minority Report and I, Robot, to name a few.

Driverless cars offer a tantalizing future where car accidents are at a minimum. With the ability to have more sensors than two human eyes to detect and analyze possible collisions, as well as reaction systems unaffected by sleep deprivation, road rage or other distractions, driverless cars could truly revolutionize travel.

While companies have worked on autonomous vehicular systems for decades, we are just beginning to see significant advances in the last few years. But how close is this, really, to appearing at your local car dealership?

Ford, GM, Toyota, Nissan, Volvo, Audi are all working on driverless technology right now. And with each new car that comes out, we already see a lot of smart technology embedded, for example, collision avoidance systems, GM’s interactive windshield displays, and Toyota and Ford’s self parallel parking systems. As the trend toward heavier automation continues, it shouldn’t be long before we see vehicles doing the majority of driving tasks with minimal assistance from human drivers.

A fully autonomous car would integrate many systems like the ones mentioned above. Driverless prototypes typically rely on layers of sensors (GPS, ultrasonic, lidar, car-to-car communication systems and others) to perform maneuvers without a human operator. Such feats have already been demonstrated, perhaps most publically by DARPA Grand Challenge competitors and Google’s driverless cars (powered by Google Chauffeur) which have successfully traversed hundreds of thousands of driver-free miles.

England is one place where driverless technology is being tested. A company announced the 2015 launch of 100 driverless “pods” that rely on GPS, ultrasonic sensors and high-definition cameras to cart people around via an app request.

The Heathrow pods, launched in 2011, give a preview to the experience. At around 25 miles per hour, the battery-powered, self-charging pods offer interactive menus to let patrons chose from a list of locations. However, the unpredictability of city street traffic presents many complex issues for an autonomous vehicle to manage than in the tightly controlled environment of an airport terminal.

The technology is there, though whether actual implementation happens soon is hard to say. Predictions vary to just a few years (See “Driverless Cars Becoming More Real, Less Science Fiction”) to decades more (See “Driverless Cars are Further Away Than You Think“).  GM plans to release commercial autonomous vehicles by 2020, which will only be fully autonomous on large highways (See “Self-Driving Vehicles Progress Faster Than Rules of Road”).

My personal guess is that we’ll see many more forms of controlled autonomous vehicles, like the Heathrow pods, long before we’ll see driverless cars in our neighbors’ driveways. Google and others have already performed successful cross-country trips with autonomous cars, and three states already passed legislation allowing driverless cars to be tested on public roads (Nevada, California and Florida). Though these cars have demonstrated deftness at navigating highways, dealing with a congested, confusing city traffic that sentient humans can sometimes barely navigate will require a jump in processing ability. (Although a Google car did an impressive job of self-navigating through San Francisco in 2010 – See “Smarter Than You Think”). Bad weather, also, will impede autonomous driving, just as it does with humans.

Driverless cars face a number of other obstacles before becoming fully mainstream; in particular, insurance and regulation standards will hold up actual implementation (See “Self-Driving Cars More Jetsons Than Reality for Google Designers”). Bringing down the cost and retaining style in driverless cars is also another barrier.

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