A Look at the Latest Self-Driving Vehicle Technology

Google self-driving car

The self-driving car is something that has appeared in sci-fi fare for many decades. However, self-driving vehicles are gradually making their way out of cartoons and comic books and infiltrating our reality. You might not have seen any self-driving cars yet, but they’re coming.

Let’s look at where the automotive industry is with self-driving cars and how soon you might expect to see one on the road next to you or even in your driveway.

Why Do We Want Self-Driving Vehicles?

You might wonder why we even need self-driving cars. Don’t humans do a good enough job driving ourselves around?

The answer is no, as it turns out. Truck accidents are just one of the areas we can look at when we ask why we need self-driving vehicles. From 2009 to 2017, the United States saw a 40% fatal truck accident increase.  

When a truck accident occurs, it can be deadly. You have an enormous, multiple-ton vehicle that’s fully capable of taking out multiple other cars on the road in an instant under the right circumstances. Maybe you have a driver who falls asleep behind the wheel, or perhaps they’re drunk or high.

We’re not doing a whole lot better with car accidents, either. They happen frequently, and more times than not, human error is the cause.

Drivers seem all too eager to text on their phones while they should be paying attention to the road ahead of them. Then you have those who try to put ketchup on their fries while zooming down the highway at eighty miles per hour.

The list of bad driver behaviors seems endless. Self-driving vehicles could stop all that from happening. But do we want to turn vehicular control over to artificial intelligence?

How Will Self-Driving Cars Work?

The automotive industry sometimes refers to self-driving cars as “autonomous cars.” An autonomous vehicle, when it’s available, will run on a machine learning system. It will also utilize complex algorithms, actuators, and sensors to indicate what’s around it at any moment.

All of that sounds pretty complicated, but here’s the biggest takeaway: autonomous car creators aren’t going to let these vehicles onto the roads until they’ve tested them extensively. They don’t want any of these vehicles going haywire and plowing into a crowd of pedestrians.

Automakers know the lawsuits they would run into, and even though they’re all competing with each other, they’re not jumping the gun on making this technology widely available.

Autonomous cars will map their surroundings as they drive. They will have sensors located all over the vehicle. However, you should understand that as time passes, there are also going to be more sensors elsewhere as well.

IoT, or the “internet of things,” will help self-driving cars. IoT involves having sensors embedded everywhere, such as underneath city streets, in mailboxes, traffic lights, etc. It creates a real-time working grid with which the self-driving cars will be able to interact.

Traffic Pattern Predictions

Because these cars will be able to communicate with sensors all around them, they’ll identify and predict traffic patterns. They’ll use radar sensors to detect vehicles in other lanes. They will use video cameras to “see” pedestrians, traffic lights, road signs, and so forth.

In other words, when this technology arrives, you’ll have a car that’s communicating with and receiving data from receptors all around it. Self-driving cars, when we have this widespread technology, won’t just be about the vehicles themselves. There will be thousands upon thousands of data points all over the streets with which the cars will interact.

What About in the Country?

You might wonder about rural areas at this point. If the cars need all of these other external sources to navigate busy city streets, what happens when you’re out on a country road where there are no sensors or cameras?

Car manufacturers are not going to allow any self-driving cars to hit the streets until they know these vehicles can get along okay in any traffic situation. By the time the carmakers give the public access, they’ll have the algorithms and hard-coded rules in place that will guarantee smooth driving. The car should so fine even when it’s away from the urban centers where it can interact with IoT technology as it drives.

How Far Away is This Technology?

As for when you can expect to see these vehicles on the road, several companies are testing both cars for eventual widespread sale and also trucks for hauling. You’ll likely see self-driving trucks before you can buy a self-driving car.

Car companies usually refer to completely self-driving cars as “Level 5” vehicles. This means full autonomy, and we’re probably still several years away.

Several challenges face these vehicles before the manufacturers deem them safe enough for us to buy. There are environmental, philosophical, legislative, and technological issues with which the makers must contend.

For instance, think about weather conditions. A self-driving car might do fine when there’s ideal weather, but will it work as well when there’s a deluge?

How might such a vehicle do in bumper-to-bumper traffic, or on bridges, or in tunnels? If there is an accident, who’s liable? The human passenger, or would it be the manufacturer?

Then, there are emotional versus artificial intelligence issues. For example, if two cars come to a four-way stop at the same time, one driver might indicate to another with a hand gesture or eye contact who should go first. How will two self-driving cars figure that out?

There aren’t easy answers to any of these questions. That’s why, while we can’t say for sure that you’ll see self-driving cars in three years, or five, or ten, we can definitely say that it’s still going to be a while. No manufacturer will allow the general public access until they’re quite certain they’ve gotten past all these issues. For now, we have to be patient, knowing that these vehicles are on their way, but we’ll have to keep driving ourselves for now.