Monday 9th March 2015
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Self driving cars are the future according to IT and engineering giants like Google, who have developed the first self driving car.  The software technology that powers Google’s self driving car is known as Google Chauffer.  Engineer Sebastian Thrun who co-invented Google Street view is leading the project.  The idea came out of the Darpa Grand Challenges for robotic vehicles in the early 2000’s. In a nutshell it looks like a cross between a Nissan Micra and a Smart car.

Google self driving car

Google’s robotic cars have a 64 beam laser that creates a detailed 3D map of its environment; the car uses sensors and software to turn these maps into high resolution maps of the word which produces types of data models that enables the car to drive itself. A smartphone tells the car to pick up the user at their location, the destination being set.  With no steering wheel, brake, accelerator there are just start and stop buttons.  A small screen inside indicates weather, speed and reminder to take your belongings with you.  This gives a nod towards Google’s vision of the car as a shared vehicle like a taxi replacement. Think Joe taxi in Total Recall

Just last year Google showcased a prototype of a driverless car that didn’t have a steering wheel or pedals and they plan to test it in the San Francisco bay areas this year.  The system even knows how high traffic lights are positioned.

How safe are these cars?

But just how safe are these cars, are they crash proof because human error is no longer a factor?  So far, two incidents have been reported in 2010 and 2011.  Google stated that the first incident was caused by a human operated car and that during the second the car was being manually driven at the time. More worryingly, the car cannot identify debris, items, potholes and more importantly humans.  So it certainly isn’t crash proof!

However, the speed is limited to 25 mph which minimizes impact in a crash. The front of the car has a foam bumper and a flexible windscreen so if the car does hit a person it will minimize damage to the pedestrian.  Seat belts are provided and Google deploys a ‘fault tolerant architecture’ as they call it which helps with steering and braking should the system fail.  Google designed the car with a considerate and defensive driving style that helps to protect passengers and other road users. An example of this is a one second delay in the car pulling away at green traffic lights; caution is a key word for Google.

The downsides of self driving cars

So far, the technology is far from perfect and there is a long way to go.  At present the self driving car is only a two seater. The prototype produced in summer 2014 couldn’t handle heavy rain or snow covered surfaces.  Unmarked four way stop crossing causes the car to slow down considerably as the computer’s algorithms take extra precaution.   The cars can’t recognise temporary traffic signs and are unable to recognise the difference between materials such as paper and rocks, which is very tricky. They also can’t navigate around car parks.  Google anticipate having these issues fixed by 2024.

The upsides of self driving cars

In 2012 Google posted a video on YouTube of a blind man, Steve Mahan, being taken on a ride in one of the self driving cars.  Just imagine how brilliant this vehicle would be in helping blind, deaf and other people with a condition that prevents them from driving, to get around and be independent.

Also, you wouldn’t have to pay for many driving lessons, driving tests and without human error there could be less accidents and decreased wear and tear on vehicles.

The Lutz Pod

In the UK the first self driving car is the Lutz Pod, a cute two seater with futuristic funky wheels. The Lutz is designed for pedestrianised spaces rather than open roads.  Capped at a top speed of 15 mph and 40 miles or six hours on a single charge you won’t get too far too fast, but it could be very useful for commutes, small shops and short journeys.   Like the Google car it also uses LIDAR sensors and cameras. The Lutz is due to be trialled in Milton Keynes later this year by its creators Transport Systems Catapult and the RDM Group.  In support the government is working on a Code of Practice for road testing and the Department of Transport is looking at amending laws to incorporating this changing technology.

What is the future for these cars?

Unbelievably, four states in America, Nevada, Florida, California and Michigan and Washington DC have already passed legislation that allows driverless cars.  All these states allow the testing of driverless cars on public roads.  It’s still too early to say how well these cars will work and if they will eliminate the need for people to take driving lessons and pass tests. Google is providing the technology but they prefer to supply the system and data to a car manufacturer rather than manufacture cars themselves. No partnerships have yet been announced.  It looks like self driving cars are giving us a glimpse into the future but technology needs to develop much further before we can sit in a car and let it do all the work for us completely!  Would you trust a self driving car? Leave your comments below.