Automotive

Man vs. machine: Can self-driving cars really replace human drivers?

Man vs. machine: Can self-driv...
Self-driving cars are progressing at a rapid pace
Self-driving cars are progressing at a rapid pace
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Self-driving cars are progressing at a rapid pace
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Self-driving cars are progressing at a rapid pace
A fine sunny day ... perfect for an autonomous vehicle
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A fine sunny day ... perfect for an autonomous vehicle
Delphi's self-driving cars have traveled across the United States
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Delphi's self-driving cars have traveled across the United States
Self-driving cars struggle with unexpected scenarios
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Self-driving cars struggle with unexpected scenarios
Sensor technology still needs to improve
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Sensor technology still needs to improve
The Mercedes F 015 concept
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The Mercedes F 015 concept

Self-driving autonomous vehicles have been dominating the headlines this year like never before: they've gone from sci-fi fantasy to actual reality in a very short space of time, and manufacturers say some form of automobile automation will arrive by 2020 or even earlier. If you're wondering exactly how far the technology has come and how far it has to go, we're here to answer some of those questions.

As of mid-2015, Google, Tesla, NASA, Nissan, Ford and many other car makers have some kind of project in the pipeline, and there are persistent rumors that Apple is about to enter the fray too.

The pros and cons of self-driving cars

A fine sunny day ... perfect for an autonomous vehicle
A fine sunny day ... perfect for an autonomous vehicle

There are plenty of potential advantages to self-driving cars, scary though the concept may be. They don't get tired at the wheel, or distracted by kids in the back seat. They're not prone to daydreaming, and thanks to the bank of sensors and equipment at their disposal, they're much better than human drivers at spotting trouble coming from all directions – danger can be spotted from farther away and reacted to more quickly.

Then there's the actual driving: computer software can calculate stopping distances, braking speeds and junction spaces with mathematical precision. Traffic should flow more smoothly, congestion is likely to be reduced and fuel efficiency rates should rise once the robot drivers take over for good. Vehicles will be able to talk to each other too, meaning earlier warnings about traffic jams or accidents.

That said, there's still room for improvement in car sensors and detection equipment. Google says its cars can now "detect hundreds of distinct objects simultaneously – pedestrians, buses, a stop sign held up by a crossing guard, or a cyclist making gestures that indicate a possible turn." But they need to be able to recognize everything a human can, and make the appropriate response, and that's going to take more time.

Like humans, they aren't very good at interpreting body language from pedestrians and cyclists, and anticipating what these erratic humans are going to try and do next; they're also susceptible to remote hacking attacks, as we saw with the Jeep Cherokee bug exposed in July. No matter how bad flesh-and-blood drivers are at observing stop signs, they can't be remotely controlled using a laptop from the other side of the world, and that's an advantage we still have.

The technology of today and tomorrow

Delphi's self-driving cars have traveled across the United States
Delphi's self-driving cars have traveled across the United States

When it comes to freeway driving in good weather, self-driving cars are already very proficient. An adapted Audi fitted out with equipment from automobile specialists Delphi recently completed a coast-to-coast drive in the United States – a human being was at the wheel at all times, but Delphi says the car did 99 percent of the driving. Six long-range radars, four short-range radars, three vision-based cameras, six lidar sensors, a localization system, intelligent software algorithms and a full suite of Advanced Drive Assistance Systems were all fitted to the car.

Nissan and NASA have also partnered together to work on autonomous driving technology. Nissan President and CEO Carlos Ghosn says self-driving capabilities will start appearing in its cars from next year, starting with the simple (like parking assistance) and moving on to the more complex. NASA of course wants to use the same kind of technology for unmanned, deep space exploration.

One area where there's still work to be done is in reducing the reliance of these cars on information pulled from pre-existing maps. As The Atlantic reports, Google's cars drive so well in Mountain View, California because they've been fed with a hugely detailed map of the area in advance. This isn't just a map of roads and buildings, it's a map showing curb heights and road sign positions – and it's essential for a smooth autonomous drive. For areas where these maps aren't yet available, the cars' capabilities are reduced.

When we drive a car, we're not just relying on the information coming through our eyes and ears – we're also relying on our previous driving experience and our knowledge of how other drivers are likely to react. That's a gap that autonomous vehicles are still trying to close, even with these vehicles clocking hundreds of thousands of miles every year.

One step at a time

Sensor technology still needs to improve
Sensor technology still needs to improve

As we've seen at numerous robotics competitions, making something fully autonomous is an incredibly difficult challenge. Atempting to duplicate the experience, knowledge and intuition held inside the human brain requires some complex code and a massive database of reference material. For that reason, it's likely that our cars will become gradually more sophisticated and semi-autonomous as they go, rather than making a sudden jump forward – remember that technologies such as cruise control, parking assistance and satellite navigation are already common.

That's certainly Elon Musk's approach at Tesla. He thinks it will take a couple of decades for cars to go from partially self-driving to fully self-driving, at which point it might even be illegal for humans to drive (because of the associated safety issues with letting a man or woman behind the wheel). A software update rolling out later this year is going to give certain Tesla models a limited number of autonomous driving capabilities.

One of those will be navigating slowly around a car park to pick you up; another will be managing line changes at high speeds on a highway (like an advanced version of cruise control). As Musk points out, low speeds and high speeds are where self-driving software finds operating a car easiest – it's everywhere in between where there's less predictability and still some room for improvement. The Mercedes F 015, for example, struggles in rain and hot weather, and currently requires external beacons to guide it correctly.

The Mercedes F 015 concept
The Mercedes F 015 concept

In the next year or two, you'll be able to buy kits to convert your car into a self-driving motor for around US$10,000. They consist of a sensor and camera pod on the roof, a computer sitting in the boot, and a device under the chassis for controlling steering and speed. Kyle Vogt, chief of the Cruise Automation company selling these kits, thinks they'll be commonplace in the next three years.

That's a lot to consider, and of course government legislation will need to catch up before you can take one of these autonomous cars out on the road, but the technology is going to be here sooner than you think – even if the reality of fully self-driving vehicles are still some 10 or 20 years away.

16 comments
Bob Flint
1. Bottom line is there a real cost advantage? 2. Not all vehicles operate with the same parameters. (ie; legislated set speed, and road rules) 3. Transition & partial self control to full autonomous, versus liability and error determination who's to blame. (the one with the most cash.) 4. We can't even build perfect human driven cars, look at all the recalls of every single automobile manufacturer. 5. So take the human out of the equation and you have a very expensive perfected piece of technology, that is waiting for the latest download, to try and circumvent the impending weather that will force a standby, or reschedule for later mode....Please Stand Buy...Beep..
zevulon
deflationary wages and a prolific amount of spare time for people means, the price point of self driving cars has to be very low and they have to be very effective to have wide appeal. most people simply aren't wealthy/rich enough for buying an expensive self driving car to make sense, in the current economic context of transportation. this is why companies like uber and google understand that the economics of self driving cars must actually exploit capital efficienies made possible by the technology, namely the fleet business model of self driving cars maximizes the usage of capital , thereby 1) minimizing the labor input in substituted activities such as the labor cost of running a taxi or a bus and 2) the future of 'car sharing' is essentially a consumer fleet of vehicles that is able to displace the ability of people to own cars by making it FAR CHEAPER TO USE CARS so that the price of these expensive autonomous fleets on a per-car basis, while much MUCH higher than an individual manual car, is still able to compete with existing car ownership by making car-sharing far far cheaper than it already is, thereby making it less attractive to buy a car. if fewer people buy cars becasue autonomous vehicle fleets make car sharing incredibly cheap and effective ( orders of magnitutde moreso than today) --, than to make the some money selling those cars, the existing auto behemoths MUST raise the prices to keep profits up. this creates a VICIOUS cycle of increasing car ownership prices for remaining vehicle users that don't car share. effectively----productivity gains in autonomous driving will lead to a capital sharing model that displaces ownership by raiising the costs to owners all things being equal. so in the future, to own a car, you'll need to be relatively richer than now.
James Poirier
Google-Map "World Transportation Center" ...if you wish to know the geographic location where America's new autonomous-car system begins.
Tom Lee Mullins
While I think self driving cars are cool and there is a place for them, I still want the option to drive it myself. It would be like some of the cars in the movie Demolition Man. They had cars that drove themselves but also had the option where the driver could steer. I think this was true also in the movie I, Robots.
Alexander Lowe
Sounds as if the general answer to the question is: 'not quite yet'. If the technology were fully capable, I'd run it as a public service, not a business. Robot cars would eventually make most other forms of motorised private transport redundant. It's more sensible to have standard infrastucture (e.g., recharging systems for electric 'auto-autos'), rather than repeat the mess of duplication, of the sort we've seen in the UK with the mobile 'phone companies. Where they don't duplicate (e.g., transmitter masts), they collaborate, so there is an effective monopoly, and where there is a natural monopoly it needs to be controlled democratically. The same is applicable to the privatised bus and rail companies. Another issue is legal accountability, and that's been a disaster in the UK, where rail companies (for example) are contractors, who sub-contract work. When accidents occur, deciding who is liable can be like trying to untie the Gordian knot. In summary, it's not the technology, it's how it's used.
Brian M
@Tom Think the opposite will happen! People like owning their own things especially houses and cars., although taxi drivers might well be looking for a new career! The technology for the driverless car is not going to be much more expensive to buy or run than todays cars, maybe even cheaper as cars will be driven correctly! Yes the development is expensive but once done the additional hardware is going to be minimal. The conventional car has been heading towards electronically controlled mechanical parts for some time on cost grounds anyway, so driverless just adds the cost of sensors and control. Perhaps its time to re-think projects like high speed rail links - and put infrastructure in for driverless electric cars, door to door convenience, with your own space and no over talkative taxi drivers - heaven!
Cyndy
I love this idea because it takes ego's out of the equation. This tech has been worked on since the 80's and has matured well. Self driving vehicles will usher in far fewer accidents, crashes, and deaths. This could end DWI's as well. These vehicles will also obey the legal speeds. Hotrodders and macho drivers will fade into history, bye and good riddance.
Rigby5
The belief we can now make affordable autonomous cars is totally and completely ridiculous. Planes, trains, ships, and even trucks cost many times more, and yet still can not afford autonomous systems. No one has done it yet, and it is not clear anyone can ever do it in a general way. Current tests that avoid parking lots, rain, snow, etc., are not at all proof of concept. This is based on ignorance. Autonomous systems are not better than human drivers. For example, most people think ABS reduces braking distance automatically, but the reality is any good driver can beat ABS significantly, so ABS has increased braking distance for them. Another example is the belief people want autonomous cars. That is silly because people LIKE to drive. They are not going to pay for expensive autonomous systems they won't trust and don't want. Anyone who does not like to drive, takes mass transit, not spend ridiculous amounts on something that is not reliable. Autonomous car hype also ignores the realities. Makers will go bankrupt quickly because they will become party to any and all accident lawsuits, and with the deepest pockets, will always be paying big jury awards. The government will never allow autonomous cars once they realize they could easily be used for crime, such as delivering terrorist bombs.
vonborks
Self-driving cars, the final battle in the cyber war between Machines and Humans. A simple but real world example: Early in the morning you jump into your self-driving car and direct it to take you to work, the car reminds you that it is Voting Day, it informs you that it will take you to your neighborhood voting Poll first and then on to work, you agree and thank the car for the reminder. You fully intend to vote for Candidate “B”. Soothing background plays, subliminally you are being told to vote for Candidate “A”. You reach the Poll, jump out and quickly vote for “A”, back into the car and off to works, believing that you voted for your Candidate “B”.
ezeflyer
Self flying personal aircraft will make self driving cars secondary transportation.