Pioneers of Autonomous Cars

The field of driverless cars has been developing at an incredibly fast pace. Up until the early 2010’s, Google remained the sole proponent for fully autonomous cars. However, come CES 2014, BMW soon showcased their advancements in the field as well. As a result, other mainstream manufacturers soon jumped the bandwagon and have begun their in-house development of autonomous cars. We take a look at the current players playing an active role in bringing driverless cars to the general public.

Google

One of the earliest advocates for autonomous driving technology, tech giant Google has been tweaking and testing its driverless car for a few years now. Prior to its current in-house developed super mini, Google made use of existing cars such as Toyota Prius and the Lexus RX450h and retrofitted each of them with sensors, cameras and specialized hardware to allow for autonomous capabilities.

The Google driverless car
The Google driverless car

Soon after, Google developed its very own bespoke car to continue with its experiments and showcase what its fully production ready car might look like. The Google car is a small hatch with a neutral color paint job. Unlike other manufacturers that provide a manual override in the form of a steering wheel and conventional pedals, Google’s driverless car features nothing of the sort. A sign of complete confidence from the maker in its abilities. The car features no distinct features save for two ‘eyes’ and a ‘nose’. The main purpose of the car’s “cutesy” design is to disarm the general public.

The car make’s use of a dizzying array of sensors and cameras to map the road ahead. The on-board computer then processes this information with pre-existing map data to create an inch perfect replica of its immediate surroundings. Some computation is even performed on remote server locations. Each Google car is fitted with sensor equipment worth over $150,000.

BMW

Although Google may have been one of the first endorsers of driverless vehicles, recent reports suggest that the tech supergiant is not leading horse of this race. Mainstream manufacturers such as BMW may have a higher probability of launching a fully autonomous car for commercial purposes. Unlike the Google car that focused primary on city driving, BMW’s initiative proved a bit more entertaining. The self-driving car in its most advanced avatar was showcased at CES 2014 in the form of a live demo. The Bavarian car maker managed to develop a system that mapped a certain race track and “learnt” the quickest possible routes. Similar to Google’s self-driving car, BMW’s autonomous 2 Series and 6 Series were fitted with a host of sensors that generate a 3D map of the car’s surroundings.

BMW's ultimate "drifting" machine
BMW’s ultimate “drifting” machine

Tesla

Tesla’s entry into the autonomous vehicle industry was rather unexpected. Unlike other manufacturers that advertised the upcoming technology, Elon Musk quietly added an autopilot mode for the Model S in a recent update that allowed near complete autonomous driving. However, human intervention is required from time to time. However, with the addition of the feature, Tesla has officially joined the race.

Tesla Model S P85D
The new Tesla Model S models come with auto pilot

Ford

Ford has had a late start in the autonomous vehicle segment. Ford and one other South Korean car maker are the only two manufacturers on this list that cater to a wider spectrum of car buyers. With Ford’s entry this year, we may see small instances of autonomous driving technologies such as fully driverless parking and retrieval in budget cars such as the Fiesta or Taurus.

Ford has only recently jumped into the driverless car band wagon
Ford has only recently jumped into the driverless car band wagon

Kia

South Korean car maker Kia is the other budget manufacturer to begin testing its autonomous vehicular technology. Although Ford’s and Kia’s development phases have only just begun, 2016 provides far more resources and information regarding autonomous driving technology than all the previous years. As such, the manufacturers are now able to work with more than what most car makers began with.

Kia is a South Korean car maker under Hyundai's ownership
Kia is a South Korean car maker under Hyundai’s ownership

Audi

Audi is one of the only manufacturers on this list to have actually released its autonomous fleet to the media. As part of an event, a few journalists were offered a ride from Las Vegas to CES 2015. An interesting feature of Audi’s system is the inclusion of two cameras that constantly monitor the driver’s eyes. Should the driver close his eyes, the car begins beeping loudly and comes to a complete halt following which the car switches its hazard lights on.

Audi's fleet of autonomous cars ferried journalists from Las Vegas to CES
Audi’s fleet of autonomous cars ferried journalists from Las Vegas to CES

As with most new technologies, the latent complications and ethical dilemmas of various scenarios are yet to be fully explored. Similar to the internet, Einstein’s mass-energy equation and programming, autonomous vehicles are also susceptible to misuse. As such, fears of the public are not unfounded. However, one must progress and the only direction is forwards.

Autonomous Car Systems: How Do They Work?

Cars have been around for years now, with one of the earliest cars ever made was back in 1769. Over the course of three centuries, the motor car has evolved into more than just a machine made for convenience. The car as we know it today has transformed into a tool for comfort and competition. While the internal mechanics and general purpose of cars has evolved through the decades, one of the main components of the driving experience i.e. the driver behind the wheel always remained constant. However, the rapid advancements in various technological fields is all set to change that.

Google is one among many corporate giants that have begun developing autonomous cars
Google is one among many corporate giants that have begun developing autonomous cars

The birth of transistors and subsequent developments in the fields of digital computing has led to advanced AI (artificial intelligence) projects from various corporations such as Google, Apple, Boston Dynamics and Honda. Despite the sci-fi legacy of artificial intelligence, we are indeed implementing AI in almost every possible field already. While most real world applications of AI is quite dull, some establishments produce immensely interesting and questionable products such as the very first non-human world chess champion (IBM’s Deep Blue) to a rat brain (The SyNAPSE Project).

The automotive industry too has begun the march towards AI. During the late 20th and early 21st century, contemporary advancements in semiconductor technology disallowed the implementation of AI in cars. These days, premium car makers such as Mercedes Benz, Audi and BMW now fit various AI cores in numerous safety systems. Car manufacturers are now taking the next step into the future: autonomous vehicles.

Mercedes Benz Brabus Rocket 900 Front Three Quarter
The Mercedes Benz S Class is an example of a car with a multitude of sensors and CPUs that constantly monitor the car’s environment as well as its occupants to maximize safety

Autonomous driving in its most basic sense is a vehicle that drives itself with the belief that a inorganic machine behind the wheel should theoretically reduce the number of accidents that occur on the road. While humans fall prey to distractions, rage, carelessness or general ineptitude, a machine specifically designed to manage traffic and navigate itself to a destination does not drop the ball. The CPU or computer of the car manages the steering, brake, throttle and gear position and constantly monitors its surroundings for dangers that lie ahead. Various manufacturers implement driverless cars in various different ways. Currently, Tesla, BMW, Audi and Google have been making headlines for their achievements in the field of autonomous driving.

BMW's take on the autonomous vehicle can even hold a powerslide
BMW’s take on the autonomous vehicle can even hold a powerslide

For an autonomous system to navigate itself, it must first be able “see”. For this, common camera systems are not enough as raw video/image data is near impossible to accurately decipher by our silicon counterparts (this is also the basic idea behind captcha or Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart). For better accuracy and resolution, most autonomous cars implement a combination of 360 degree RADAR & LIDAR systems, ultrasonic sensors and cameras. RADAR and LIDAR systems implement radio waves and laser beams respectively.

These radio waves and lasers are shot in every possible direction and the time taken for them to return is measured. This provides the distance between the point of origin (car) and the obstacle (wall, other cars, pedestrian etc). All these systems help generate a 3D map of the environment and endows the car with “sight”. For a better understanding of what a car perceives as vision, ScanLAB Projects conducted an experiment for the New York Times providing insight into the ocular capabilities of a driverless car.

The on-board computer’s memory may also store map data and high resolution images of streets to compare with its immediate surroundings and determine where it is and where it should be going. The on board computer also contains algorithms on basic road etiquette, ovetaking maneuvers, laws that govern the road and more importantly collision avoidance tactics. To avoid any mishaps on the road, most drivers must have rapid response times. While computer systems these days are immensely powerful, speed is of the essence. As such, developers such as Google make use remote computer farms for computation capability to ensure the on-board systems are under less stress and focus more on immediate responses. The computer then adjusts the steering, throttle and gears to pilot itself to the specified destination.

Numerous manufacturers are now participating in the driverless car generation
Numerous manufacturers are now participating in the driverless car generation

Driving is a skill developed over time. Over the course of many years, a driver learns where the potholes maybe, how reliably his car handles in various weather conditions, estimating possible collision situations and molding (this very human characteristic may prove to be a boon or bane depending on circumstances) his fellow drivers’ mental state, driving standards and etiquette to adjust his driving style. With an autonomous car however, none of these things are possible as these scenarios are decidedly anthropomorphic in nature. The perils of autonomous driving are multiple.

However, the pros far exceed the cons and the rise of general AI will usher in a new era for humans and cars alike.

Driver less Cars – will hit the roads soon

There has been drastic change in terms of the growth of automobiles from the past era. Today’s automobiles are equipped with modern technologies which makes the vehicle more refined, efficient, comfortable, safe and attractive. Some of the technologies include efficient engines, body styling and aerodynamics, safety features, light weight, improved tire industry, hybrid and electric vehicles and alternative fuels. Thus all these things point to the amount of research that has been put into the automobiles for several decades. Considering limited dependency on conventional fuels petrol and diesel, various future mobility solutions like hydrogen powered vehicles, electric vehicles , solar cars and compressed air powered vehicles are being researched in the global automotive industry.

Mobility Solution:

One more interesting future mobility solution that has come into picture is the Driverless Car. The concept has come up in order to address the accidents on the roads and also the fatigue of the driver during long drivings.  Yes, these are the vehicles which will not be controlled by the drivers and rather will be controlled by automatic mechanical and electronic systems throughout your journey. Just imagine a driver less car on the road which is capable of performing various functions like braking, accelerating, identifying the traffic signals, cornering and changing lanes. It would be really interesting to notice such cars on road!!!

Thus it would behave like a robotic car which will take you to any desired location of yours and you just need to relax and enjoy the ride.Considering the road conditions in which we drive,you might be thinking that how such vehicles will recognize when to brake, when to stop at traffic signals, when to change lanes, when to steer and how much to steer, how to avoid any obstacles on road and many other things. But we need to support the type of research automotive engineers are doing to develop such concepts.Google has come up with a prototype of a driver less car. Apart from Google, car manufacturers like Mercedes Benz, Volvo, BMW and Audi are also working on automation in the driving process.

Driver less vehicles have three basic things to accomplish: Braking, Acceleration and Steering.

Braking:

The vehicle needs to brake during traffic signals, to keep a safe distance from the front car and in case of pedestrian crossing. In order to automate this process , sensors can be installed on the wheels or bumpers for detecting close cars. BMW is working on usage of ultrasonic sensors for detecting objects.  A 3D imaging device is required to get all the images of the environment which is then fed into the algorithm of braking. LIDAR(a radar set up) is used by Google prototype vehicle for capturing the images  and is mounted on the top of the vehicle. Finally the braking algorithm needs to be developed to take in all the data from sensors, LIDAR and provide output for braking.

Acceleration:

It requires the vehicle to understand the traffic patterns, maps and speed limits. Braking technologies will be reused to develop the acceleration algorithm.

Steering:

The vehicle needs to be equipped with inbuilt navigation system for guiding itself. Along with GPS(Global positioning system), the algorithms of braking and acceleration will also play important role in making algorithms for steering functionality.

Thus all these issues needs to be considered for developing driverless vehicles

GOOGLE Prototype Vehicle:

Google Prototype Vehicle
Google Prototype Vehicle

The vehicle looks like a compact city car. It has a stop-go button and no pedals, steering wheel. It can accommodate two passengers and the speed is limited to 40kmph for safe driving. The vehicle is propelled by electric motors. The front of the vehicle is made using a foam like material which will ensure safety for pedestrians. It uses a radar system mounted on the roof top for getting the images from the environment.

It also makes use of Google Road Maps for navigation of the vehicle from one point to another. Google has also announced that these prototypes have been tested for 7,00,000 miles on auto mode and are now focusing on busy street roads. They are also hoping to see these vehicles on road within a year.Also there are several cases where we need to be cautious with respect to this technology. One of which is the situation when the computer does not respond and requires human intervention for driving. The people seated in the car may not pay attention to it and this might lead to an accident. Thus rigorous testing is being done by Google for ensuring that they have covered all the possibilities in the driving scenarios.

Drawbacks of Driver-less Cars:

Bottom Line:

These vehicles have the true potential of bringing a change in the transportation system in terms of safety aspects, reduced pollution and  traffic congestion.  These vehicles have the ability to remove driving error and thereby reduce accidents.
Innovation at its best!