Friday, May 27, 2011

Cars That Drive Themselves

Really, truly, drive themselves while you sit there and read the newspaper (while newspapers still exist).


Google Self-Drive
Several times over the last decade, teams from around the world competed in the DARPA Urban Challenge in which vehicles navigated and drove entirely on their own on a closed course, with no human driver and no remote control. The results over those years were mixed, but that there were any successes at all to such a huge challenge from very small research teams gave reason for hope.

In the fall of 2010 it became widely known that Google had developed self-drive car technology, and that they had actually logged thousands of real world road miles on these cars with a superb track record.  Less well known, the University of Parma achieved successful road tests earlier that same year in their own version of this project.

VisLab Van
It’s human nature at this stage to ask yourself the obvious question: Would I get into a car that a machine was driving? Knowing all I know about the rate at which computers and other automation systems fail? Would I get in and trust my life and the lives of loved ones to a collection of technology?

Probably not.  Not yet anyway. But some day I think I will and you will, too. In fact, you already do something like this all the time. Elements of air travel and even car travel already depend upon technology in ways that have crept in over time. Your engine, your steering system, your braking system all depend upon a great deal of computing and related technology that takes you at least partly out of the equation. When technology works very reliably for a long period of time, we begin to trust it.

Many of the pieces to make this real have existed in basic form for years and are commercially available. I know I’m oversimplifying, but … (GPS) + (Cruise Control) + (External proximity sensors) lead to self-driving cars. Again, I’ll grant that there’s more to it than that. But how much more? Some high-end cars that you can buy today already have on-board systems that allow them to self-park. Others are starting to have crash detection systems that allow them to respond to imminent impact in ways that minimize passenger injury. If you’ve driven a car with any of these features, you are already part way to handing over driving control.

Commercial availability of this technology will continue to trickle out slowly. Ford recently revealed that they are making use of a Google technology called Prediction API to enhance the driving experience.  Using this technology, the history of that driver in that car could be available to predict destinations, and to consider traffic or weather conditions, or a desire to make a food or fuel stop, to suggest the route to be used.  Think of the best features of high-end GPS use more tightly integrated into the driving experience.  With each new model year, we can expect still more, and before we know it, we may warm up to the idea of self-drive cars.

When will you be ready to hop into a car driven by some computer hardware and software while you take a nap or read a book?  Tell us about it here in the comments!

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