Horizons · Tuesday, December 15, 2015

On the road to autonomous cars

Horizons

Driverless cars will soon revolutionize the automotive industry. All the big names in the industry have decided to initiate this shift and are already in the process of creating their prototypes. Google and Tesla, to name a few such manufacturers, are driving themselves to make road automation an inevitable trend in the future.

In the summer of 2015, the first driverless cars drove on North American roads. This inevitable revolution in the automotive industry has all its creators rallied around a common goal: creating cars that go the distance completely autonomously.

How the autonomous car works

These cars are equipped with a sophisticated sensory system (radar or camera) that allows an onboard computer to map out the environment using a GPS. The system also detects traffic lights, speed limits, pedestrians and cars in the immediate surrounding environment. Speed regulators cause the car to brake if it is approaching another car, even bringing the car to a full stop, if necessary.

When accelerating, the car is able to detect and respect speed limits. This would allow the car to avoid traffic by improving traffic flow.

Google is in the lead

Google is among the companies that are the most advanced in this technology, and even seems to be far ahead of the curve. In the summer of 2015, the company released 25 prototypes that were fully functional. With no steering wheel or pedal, these cars mark the beginning of a new generation of automobile.

Google published Self-Driving, its monthly report which summarizes the data it is collecting. In October, no accidents were reported. The 25 Google Car prototypes and 23 autonomous Lexus vehicles travelled 2 million kilometres completely independently.

While Nevada, Florida, California and Michigan have authorized autonomous driving since 2013, at present the legislative stakes are high because the technology seems to have surpassed the existing legislation governing American roads. Driverless cars will require the rules of the road and the legislative framework to be revised. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, goes even further by saying that “autonomous vehicles could eventually outlaw human drivers.” In the summer of 2015, some Quebecers were able to appreciate these legislative challenges first-hand when the Tesla Model S received a software update to its self-driving system.

Baptized Autopilot, the system gives the vehicle five autonomous functions, notably driving in the same lane and parallel parking. However, the driver must keep his or her hands on the wheel since this beta version does not yet guarantee the complete autonomy of the car.

The challenges of autonomous driving

The primary goal of creating this type of vehicle is to ensure safety – the driverless car would be an effective tool in improving road safety.

In recent months, many government projects have emerged around the world. As part of the Swedish government’s Drive Me project in Göteborg, prototypes of autonomous cars were entrusted to real users in order to measure improvements made to their systems in terms of congestion and road safety. Furthermore, this technology will most likely have to address the risks of hacking, so their onboard systems will also have to be made absolutely secure.

A number of objections raised

Many people oppose these new automobile prototypes and are raising quite a few solid arguments against them. How will cars react when faced with an emergency? Since the autonomous car removes the responsibility of driving from the person inside the car, what is the future for car owners and how do we determine their rights and responsibilities? All these questions will undoubtedly play a key role in the implementation of autonomous vehicles.

Want to learn more?

Watch the conference from France’s Centre national de recherche scientifique (CNRS) concerning autonomous driving on roads and the risks this may pose, notably relating to security (available in French only)

Watch the video of the first few times Google tested the Google Self-Driving Car

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