It’s not a dream. It’s a reality that could happen in as little as five years.
After losing his best friend to a car accident at age 18, Sebastian Thrun vowed that he would find a way to prevent fatal crashes caused by human error. Now a professor of computer science at Stanford University, Thrun joined forces with Google in 2007 to develop cars that drive on autopilot.
The state of Nevada has granted Google a license for trial on public roads – bringing self-driving vehicles one step closer to production. And the California State Senate has recently approved a bill that would legalize self-driving cars in the state.
Self-driving cars basically work by computer and memory. (The onboard computer system has a 360 degree spatial awareness.) Equipped with video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder, the test cars have driven 180,000 miles in California all by themselves.
“Before any route is driven using the automated technology, first the routes are driven to capture a detailed digital map of all of the features on the way. By mapping things like lane markers and traffic signs, the software in the car becomes familiar with the environment and its characteristics in advance.”
When the car later tackles the route without driver assistance, the same cameras, laser sensors and radar help determine where other cars are and how fast they’re moving. Meanwhile the computer software controls acceleration and deceleration and mounted cameras read and interpret traffic lights, signals and road signs.
“The problems are all about computers and information — how to get the right info to the cars at the right time,” a Google spokesman continued. “And it’s all made possible by our data centers, which are able to process the enormous amounts of info gathered by these vehicles.”
Right now, driverless cars have to be manned by two people — one to take control if necessary and another to monitor the route. But when the cars are ready for public use, this stipulation will be removed.
And in the future, autonomous cars will be able to communicate with one another, allowing them to negotiate lane changes and passing, analysts predict.
Right now, the Toyota Prius seems to be in the lead of those developing self-driving cars. And most major car companies have advanced self-driving car projects in the works. From Audi to BMW, Cadillac, Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Lexus, Nissan, Mercedes, Volkswagen and Volvo.
The obvious advantage would be for people unable to drive, like those with epilepsy, because the car would be independently mobile. It would mean that no sort of supervision is required to keep the journey safe and user-friendly.
But also consider:
Safer roads — Human error is the cause of 60 per cent of the 1.2 million fatal road traffic accidents globally each year.
Less pollution — Fuel economy would have a positive impact on the environment.
Cheaper insurance — Greatly reduced chances of having an accident will mean lower premiums.
Improved economy — The car calculates how to drive in the most efficient manner.
New designs — Visibility would be less important, so the whole shape and look of cars could be radically different.
Definitely, for those of us who can’t drive, this technology could be the start of so many options, so much more freedom.
About the author
Phylis Feiner Johnson has been a professional copywriter for 30 years. She also spent 20 years with epilepsy. She writes from the heart to increase education, awareness and funding for epilepsy research. For further information, contact The Epilepsy Foundation of Eastern Pennsylvania at http://www.efepa.org/ and please make a contribution to become an advocate, too.