Like it or loath it, driverless cars – sometimes referred to less fetchingly as autonomous vehicles – are going to be part of our future on the road, and with over twenty- ve di erent manufacturers working on the concept, it won’t be too long before they become commonplace. Ford, BMW, Jaguar, Honda and even Volvo are either sponsoring research or have teams actively working in the eld, and with the Google eet of cars becoming permanent xtures on Californian roads, this is technology that has become hot. Road vehicles fall into a number of well-de ned categories that clarify exactly what they do and how much interaction they need.
The current classi cation system, as decreed by the Society of Automotive Engineers, breaks out as:
Level 0: The driver is in complete control of the vehicle at all times and any automation is restricted to navigation guidance and similar systems only.
Level 1: Some individual vehicle controls are automated, such as electronic stability control or automatic braking via a series of external sensors. This level includes the automatic parking systems found on some cars.
Level 2: At least two controls can be automated in unison, such as cruise control operating in combination with lane-following technology.
Level 3: The driver can fully hand over control of all safety-critical functions under certain conditions. The car senses when conditions require the driver to retake control and provides a short transition time to enable the driver to do so.
Level 4: The vehicle performs all safety-critical functions for the entire trip, with the driver not expected to control the vehicle at any time. At this level the vehicle would control all functions from start to stop, including all parking functions, it could include unoccupied cars.
Actually not a new idea, driverless cars have been a dream for the motor industry since at least the 1920s, but they didn’t become even close to a reality until the 1980s, when the Navlab and ALV projects were devised by Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University and the joint Mercedes Benz and Bundeswehr University Prometheus project. While neither of these designs produced serious road-going vehicles, they formed the basis of later designs, and inspired both the Tesla software system and the concept of the Google Driverless car. Of these, the Google vehicle eet currently comprises around a dozen vehicles that have been designed to be truly driverless.
To date they have completed a total of one and a half million miles in fully autonomous mode around the streets of California.
However, those miles haven’t been without incident, and to date, Google cars have been involved in fteen road incidents, but mostly these have been the driverless cars being rear-ended by other road users who weren’t paying attention. By any standards, that is insigni cant compared to the carnage of human controlled vehicles. It is reckoned that one person is killed every 25 seconds on the world’s roads, and only 28 countries have what are considered to be adequate road or vehicle safety systems. Faced with these statistics, driverless cars would seem to be the logical conclusion.
The interest in driverless cars is, ahem, driven partly by the technology being available and capturing the public’s imagination, partly by safety factors, and partly by ecological issues. Driverless cars are seen as an antidote to much of the bullish behaviour seen in car drivers and, once the infrastructure is in place, they are likely to become the vehicle of choice for getting around cities. Termed ‘Transit Orientated Development’ many cities are now starting to think about altering roadways for driverless cars, but are they really the future of road safety, or just another means of taking the joy out of driving?
The future is green, and eerily quiet
The driverless cars that are being designed are, in line with current ecological thinking, electrically powered. No need to go and ll up with smelly diesel or petrol, and with technology like the Plugless L2 system that allows electric cars to be charged using inductive technology, this means that they can charge just by being near a charging device, so another piece of human intervention disappears. You just park and charge, and with chargers being east to t in the road or on walls, the cars are unlikely to ever run down.
The infrastructure needed to successfully run autonomous vehicles is gradually being put in place, but can they coexist with normally driven cars? The evidence says not. Computer scientists from the University of Texas have developed smart intersections which are essential to the operation of driverless cars. These junctions are completely unlike any currently on the road and are without tra c lights and stop signs. The right of way is determined by signals between the autonomous vehicles rather than set timespans between signal changes, which plainly isn’t going to work well with normal cars. Given that the unconnected car is the weakest link in the system, a road vehicle think-tank proposed that they are removed from what will become increasingly busy driverless-car dominated city centres. The future looks like being a split between driverless cars in cities and driven cars in outlying areas where it is di cult to create the necessary systems needed to run them. Dan Rather, the former CBS news anchor, once said “Americans will put up with anything provided it doesn’t block tra c” and with networked cars creating their own route plans, tra c jams will become a thing of the past. If you want to see the future, think of pleasant, unhindered journeys. Unhindered, but not very awe-inspiring!
Road to nowhere?
Our technology is now at a standard where it is better than our reactions, and that just makes the case for driverless cars all the more compelling, but what of the thrill that we get from our cars? A driverless car promises to transport us between A and B in comfort and without having to get involved in the process at all. Like trains and airplanes, we can sit back and enjoy the view. It is transport at its most fundamental level, but one with the passion subtly removed. Get behind the wheel of a Ferrari and the blood sings; step into a driverless car and your heartbeat rises not one iota. Driverless systems o er safer driving, courtesy at junctions, and none of that annoying tailgating which are all good things, but it’s going to be hard to give up the roar of a throaty V8 any time soon!