How long until driverless cars are feasible?

As of this month, driverless cars are being tested in the UK, and changes to road regulations and the Highway Code are being considered in order to accommodate for this kind of technology.

The government are investing £19 million to fund the launch of driverless car schemes in Milton Keynes, Coventry, Bristol and Greenwich. It has been proposed that this will help the UK become a key player in driverless technology; it is expected that by 2030 the technology will reach a level of sophistication which will allow it to be used safely.

In 2017 the domestic regulations for the Highway Code and MOT guidelines will be reviewed to accommodate for this the new technology. Similarly, Google, who have owned a fleet of driverless cars since 2009, predict that in California the technology will eventually be safe and legal, and will hit the mainstream by 2020.

While there are many different manufacturers of driverless technology, the principle behind the technology remains consistent; it works in a way similar to radar and sonar, only more precise. The cars have a number of external sensors that collect data from 64 rotating laser beams to form a 3D model of the close vicinity of the vehicle. This is then combined with preloaded data, which contains information on buildings, traffic lights, and lampposts. The car will also possess a radar imaging system, a camera, and a GPS to help provide a more accurate picture of the environment, where the vehicle will be equipped  to navigate obstacles.

Despite the apparent success of this technology, it is still yet to be fully functional. For instance, during a competition in South Korea last year, held by Hyundai, driverless cars performed well in dry weather. But during wet and misty conditions, the cars missed kerbs, veered off route and mounted the pavement. These problems occurred as the sensors involved in creating the 3D model were easily obscured. This is a big problem considering the ways to which these sensors can be obscured by things such as wet weather. However, there may already be a solution which involves equipping cars with a wider array of sensors, as well as placing these sensors in the surrounding environment. It is possible that communication between cars and roadside sensors could account and compensate for any problems faced solely by car sensors.

A second major roadblock that could limit the progress of driverless technology are the concerns about the safety and security of the user. For example, a problem with the software controlling the car could be that it could lead to a major accident. Similarly, as with most technology, the software could be prone to hacking, and to a host of other dangers that have arrived with 21st century technology.

The solutions to these kinds of problems are still unclear and need to be explored before driverless technology becomes fully integrated. However, some companies have shown some success in addressing these safety concerns. Following a collision that resulted in a battery fire due to underbody damage, Tesla cars released a software update to their Model S cars, allowing the suspension to be lowered when travelling at speed, reducing the risk of debris damaging the battery. This ability to remotely alter hardware via installed software will play an important role in helping limit concerns over safety.

As well as safety, there are also a number of legal implications which need careful consideration. Following on from the current trials into driverless technology, a review of UK legislation will be able to look into the legal responsibility of a driver inside a driverless machine, and will attempt to create a legal framework that guarantees the safety of both drivers and pedestrians. Similarly, one insurance group, Axa, are going to be examining the legal ramifications of this technology, as well as the requirements for insuring autonomous vehicles.

The future of this technology is slowly taking shape all over the world; a concept that is truly seen to be believed. Even Uber are plunging into this territory, having recently announced that are planning to develop their own self-driving cars. This announcement follows reports that Google may be attempting to develop a car-sharing service like Uber. Uber’s investment in this technology shows the importance of this feat of engineering, and could eventually replace Uber’s own taxi drivers. The battlefield is set.

Clearly, considerable work still needs to be undertaken to perfect the technology behind autonomous vehicles, but luckily for companies with pockets large enough to invest and explore this unchartered world, the pace to which driverless technology becomes a common day occurrence is moving is rapidly increasing.

Steven Gibney

Image: NBC news

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