Imagine, you have to drive from Dubai to Abu Dhabi along Shaikh Zayed Road. It would be an approximately 90 minutes drive but would it not be more productive, and perhaps, relaxing if you were ‘driving’ in a driverless car?
The future of transportation is here. Or at least the technology is here. So far, only the US state of Nevada has allowed driverless vehicles on its roads. Probably, once the system is working as hoped, all that will be required is to key in your destination and probably the route to take to, and you are “driven” to your destination.
Reports say a typical American spends an average of about 100 hours a year in traffic. Employees would love the idea if they could log in to their system and officially starts working as soon as they hop into their cars.
In a major break-through, Google recently won the patent for driverless cars. The patent relates to a method to switch the vehicle from a human-controlled mode into the state where the automated system takes over. While the full automated automobile technology may not be exactly new, modern metro train services, including Dubai Metro, run driverless. This is the first ever patent being awarded to an autonomous company for driverless or autonomous vehicles.
Experts say that Google’s patent will not prevent others developing rival self-drive vehicles, using other techniques or methods.
Andrew Alton, a patent attorney at Urquhart-Dykes & Lord said: “This patent, which is effective in the US only, would only be enforceable to prevent other companies from using the same specific method and not to prevent other companies also providing autonomous vehicles in general.”
HOW IT WORKS
A Velodyne 64-beam laser range-finder sits on the car’s roof, which is the “heart of the system”. The Artificial Intelligence (AI) system scans and records laser measurements to create a 3D model of the world around it which then correlates to high-resolution Google maps. From this, it creates routes that avoid obstacles and obey traffic rules.
The vehicle is also equipped with radar, GPS, an inertial measurement unit, and other sensors that keep the vehicle on course and provide it with 360-degree situational awareness.
Google has paid extra attention to the software program to make it extremely courteous and so it will strictly adhere to road rules and careful about to pedestrian crossings. However, it can also be aggressive toward other vehicles that aren’t obeying the right-of-way rules by easing into the intersection to assert that it will be turning first.
So, what’s the aim of Google driverless car? Project leader Sebastian Thrun wrote on Google’s blog, to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions through ride sharing and the new highway trains of tomorrow.”
Google has been extensively testing driverless cars for years. The system works on an integrated system consisting of artificial intelligence with the firm’s Google Street View maps as well as video cameras and a range of sensors.
Google has adapted a fleet of Toyota Prius and Audi TT models which have driven more than 160,000 miles with limited human input and more than 1,000 miles without driver involvement. The only accident that has occurred so far was when one of the cars was rear-ended by a driver at a stop light. However, this was a human error.
Google believes that the technology could nearly half the number of automobile-related deaths because computers are supposedly better at driving than humans in the right circumstances.
Apart from Google, other companies too are busy testing their version of autonomous or driverless vehicles and related systems. MIT and Volkswagen have collaborated to create 3D navigation systems that can be embedded in a car’s dashboard. Ford has been testing voice-activated car gadgets for its electric fleet. Siemens is also involved in conducting trials for wireless electric car charging stations. Autopia reports that future cars could be the ones which you could “drive with your mind”.
The laws and regulations for driverless cars, more than the technology, is the main hinderance in its adoption.
There are several interesting questions that prop up for driverless cars. Suppose if you get in an accident while driving in auto-mode, then whose fault would it be? Will you, as the car driver, be to blame and liable or Google, who designed the system?
While it’s true that even flights now operate mostly in auto-mode and pilots perhaps take control for less than 1/10th of the journey, the scenario at the ground level is not exactly the same with so many obstructions and rules to take care of.
The integration of various technologies like GPS, radar and sensors also makes it even more critically important and allow lesser room for failure.
Tyler Cowen, an economist says: “Though the notion is scary, the benefits are potentially significant”.
However, he insists that unless the current driving codes are rewritten, which take for granted that a person is behind the wheel, we may not see many driverless vehicles on the road.
Google is betting on this technology in the hope of reaping benefits of being an early adopter, especially with this new patent under its belt.
Surely there are direct and indirect advantages of autonomous driving cars. These include:
- Fewer crashes as statistically it is proven that machines drive more reliably than humans
- Increased roadway capacity since machines can keep minimum distance and still drive safe when compared with a human driver
- Unlike human, a machine does not have the ‘state of mind’ and hence it would not matter if the driver is too old or too young, and if they are in they are in their right frame of mind
- Help alleviate parking problems as cars could drop off passengers and park far away where space is not scarce
Raul Rojas, professor at Berlin’s Free University said: “It will be forbidden for people to drive cars for safety reasons in future. The cars of today are the horses of yesterday. In five to ten years, the technology could be applied in private areas like airports, factories or warehouses. On motorways, it could be in 10-20 years. In cities, the obstacles could be removed in 20-30 years.”
WOULD YOU DRIVE IT?
Arabiangazette.com checked with a few people and here’s what they say:
First we checked with our editor, Moign Khwaja, who agrees that driverless vehicles are the future but went on to say that he is not comfortable of the thought of getting into a fully automated car for the simple reason that there are too many things to be checked where machines might fail and also too many rules on road to be followed.
Abid Backer, a banker based in Dubai says that although he’s excited to see huge advancements in such technologies, humans’ ability to deal with multiple complex situations and to make decisions is simply irreplaceable. Abid, however, foresees an immediate future which he reckons is the most practical way. “Let these automated cars to move along in a dedicated lane. That will help us learn a whole lot about these cars and how people behave when they’re on the roads.”
Tom Brandt, a programmer based in Milwaukee, USA, had an interesting comment. He wonders what happens if a cop wants to pull over a car and everyone inside is sleeping. Since these systems basically run on programs, chances are that it could get hit by a malware or virus which totally messes up the travel plan and make the passengers end up somewhere on the West Coast, when they actually wanted to go to New York.
Babu Raj, a Indian entrepreneur, said the introduction of robot cars in India will take even longer since the road infrastructure is poor compared to many developed countries. Roads with no proper lanes and signs, he insists, would be difficult for driverless cars to manoeuvre, something Indians do on their roads on a daily basis.
However, Susanne, a healthcare professional from Germany, said she is thrilled by the advancement in driverless technologies. She has been closely following the developments since September when Volkswagen demonstrated their version of driverless car. The German medic hopes to see driverless cars on the roads sooner than later.
Thomas Savio, an IT analyst working in Singapore wonders if this technology could be misused. He is concerned if criminals could break into your car and then use it for transporting illegal goods without actually present in the car.
Laura, an Australian national working in Dubai, said she would not get into a driverless car since it is too risky and relatively new technology. She too raised the question of responsibility when the vehicle is involved in an accident while in auto-mode.
Do you think this technology is practical and eventually be deployed? We would love to hear your comments.
Sources: PCWorld, Time Magazine, New York Times, Smart Planet, Mashable, TechSpy