The Cars of Tomorrow
Get ready for cars that drive themselves.
Today’s cars, however, are a whole lot smarter, and tomorrow’s cars may even be able to think for themselves, meaning drivers of the future may be relegated to mere passengers while the vehicle captains itself.
Already in Israel, a fleet of about 10 vehicles patrol the border without anyone in the driver’s seat. Deployed in 2008, the vehicles take the place of some soldiers on the front lines and prevent them from coming face-to-face with potential gunfire or violence.
The vehicles use several cameras to view surroundings as well as lasers and radar to avoid hitting obstacles, and are controlled by a computer program that controls the car, navigates the terrain via GPS and takes in data and “decides” what to do when a surprise arises. The vehicles patrol areas where there is very little traffic or people.
“Sensors and cameras and computers make intelligent decisions; they can tell what is normal or abnormal,” said Hugo Guterman, a researcher at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who helped to develop the computer systems that control the car. “The computer system is designed to act like two people — a driver and a backseat driver to look to see if you’re driving OK.”
These autonomous vehicles are manufactured by an Israeli company called G-NIUS. “After being programmed to patrol certain areas, they run on their own,” said Gabi Davidson, VP of marketing for the company.
Guterman is currently working on systems that can “think” and understand different scenarios and process information. The systems are designed to work with vehicles that do jobs, snow removal vehicles, for example, or search and rescue vehicles that can “talk to each other” and work together, all with minimal human input.
“In the future,” Guterman predicted, “vehicles will be built for tasks, not for people. At a certain point, actual driving will be just for fun.”
The technology that will make this possible is probably already in the vehicle you drive, albeit on a smaller scale. According to the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration, there are four levels of vehicle autonomy.
Level 1 autonomy, which includes systems that assist in emergency situations, such as electronic stability control, are fairly common. Level 2 autonomy includes features like the active cruise control in the 2013 Ford Fusion, which will alert drivers when they drift out of their lanes or warn them when it senses the driver becoming drowsy. The 2013 Lexus LS model stops if it detects an imminent collision while the vehicle is traveling at up to 24 mph. At higher speeds, it will slow the car down.
Level 3 autonomy would be a self-driving car where the driver is expected to be behind the wheel and take over driving at times. These vehicles are being tested on American highways now.
Google’s driverless car is being tested on the public roads of Nevada, Florida and California. Michigan may be next to legalize autonomous vehicles on its roads. Gov. Rick Snyder, this year, called on the legislature to pass a bill allowing it. A bipartisan bill (currently in the state hearings process) would require a licensed driver behind the wheel while testing.
The Google driverless car uses a complex and expensive system of radar, cameras, sensors and laser-based range finders (LIDAR) to detect obstacles. Unlike the Israeli vehicles, the Google driverless car (which is tested with a driver behind the wheel), operates on congested highways, merging onto freeways, driving safely through intersections, turning and passing slower-moving vehicles.
One advantage to such a “driverless” vehicle is safety. Google claims to have logged more than 500,000 miles in automated mode without an accident. (There has been one accident when a human was behind the wheel, according to the company). Google estimates that self-driving cars could reduce the annual 30,000 road fatalities and 2 million injuries in the United States by up to 90 percent.
While Google’s driverless car can detect obstacles and brake faster than a human, it can’t defy physics. The vehicle can stop within 9 feet at 40 mph compared with 12 feet at 40 mph for a human. But if a person jumps out within 8 feet of the vehicle, he or she will get run over. An accident is only a matter of time.
Google anticipates that its vehicle automation technology could hit the consumer market in a decade. It will come with a walloping price tag, however — $150,000 as it stands now.
There are other companies looking to create a cheaper version of the driverless car. A team of scientists at Oxford University has created a system operated from a dash-mounted iPad called RobotCar, according to a Phys.org report. Its system costs $7,750 currently, but the team thinks it can get the price down to as low as $150. A person will need to be in the vehicle, however; as the system will take over vehicle operation only on routine driving routes.
Here’s how it works: The vehicle makes a 3D map of its surroundings with forward-facing lasers and stereo cameras mounted on the front of the car. The data is routed to a trunk-mounted vehicle computer, while a third computer communicates with the iPad, which delivers information and commands to the driver.
For example, if RobotCar senses an obstacle, it slows down and then brings its speed back up when the obstacle goes away. If a conflict arises, the vehicle cedes control to the driver. If the driver doesn’t respond, the computers bring the vehicle to a slow stop.
Researchers at Oxford anticipate its RobotCar technology to be available in new vehicles within 15 years.
Another manufacturer of autonomous vehicles in Israel says its technology could be on the road even earlier, perhaps as soon as 2016.
Mobileye, Israeli maker of advanced driver assistance technologies, was founded in 1999 by Amnon Shashua, a computer science professor from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It uses mainstream cameras that cost only a few hundred dollars to produce along with computer-
“The idea is to get the best out of camera-only autonomous driving,” said Gaby Hayon, SVP for research and development.
The Mobileye vehicle cannot do everything the Google driverless car does, but it can drive in a single lane at freeway speeds as well as identify traffic signals, automatically slow, stop and then return to highway speeds.
“It’s not autonomous driving to the extent that the driver punches in a destination and goes to sleep,” Shashua told the Israeli website the Marker. “The system is able to assume control for a limited time. The driver could read a text message or change a radio station, while giving the cameras temporary control.”
Peter Stone, a computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin told U.S. News that he’s working on a new traffic management system for driverless cars.
“Can we do better than human drivers? That’s not really a high bar to clear,” he said. “I believe they will be significantly safer than human drivers. They won’t drive drunk, suffer from road rage or text while driving.”
Before that can happen, a standard method for cars to “talk to each other” will need to be developed and rolled out to the public. The National Traffic Safety Board has called for U.S. vehicles to be equipped with that technology to help avoid accidents.
There is no set standard for “connected vehicle technology,” comprised of wireless components that let vehicles communicate with each other on the road. First, several challenges need to be solved, according to the Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers, which says that aftermarket component systems would need to be overhauled, state and federal laws would have to be unified and issues of liability hammered out.
Last August, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began a yearlong study of 3,000 connected vehicles in Ann Arbor using WiFi-like components that send data messages back and forth and are able to translate the data into hazard warnings for drivers.
“Vehicle-to-vehicle communication has the potential to be the ultimate game-changer in roadway safety — but we need to understand how to apply the technology in an effective way in the real world,” said NHTSA administrator David Strickland when the Ann Arbor test was launched.
Dr. Hongwei Zhang, a researcher in wireless networking at Wayne State University in Detroit, says the effort to connect vehicles to each other has been going on since the late 1990s, but it’s been in the past five years or so that this technology is being put to use in the real world.
“There are a host of challenges,” he said. “Technical issues, privacy concerns, safety, liability, issues of who has ultimate control, the car or the driver.”
For autonomous vehicles to become the norm, every road would need to be equipped with communication sensors, every other car on the road would be communicating its exact GPS location, and LIDAR sensors on vehicles would monitor for obstructions.
“It’s a long-term goal, but it’s not impossible,” Zhang said. “Already, we have the technology for cars to drive themselves during the slow stop-and-go speeds of a traffic jam. Self-driving cars are coming. It’s getting closer and closer.”
Level 4 autonomy — the ultimate in autonomous vehicles (think of the vehicles Will Smith’s character hops into in I Robot) that don’t require any active participation by the driver are not on the commercially viable radar yet. Neither are flying cars, for all you fans of The Jetsons — although the Transition Flying Car prototype, developed by Terrafugia Inc., recently took its inaugural flight at AirVenture, an annual gathering sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association, in Oshkosh, Wis. Price tag: $279,000, and you need a sport pilot license to drive it.