Friday TechMunch: Driverless Cars Steer Automotive Industry Into New Era

By January 2015, the cars that you pass as you drive to the shops, pick the kids up and struggle to find a parking space may be piloted by nothing more than an on-board computer. To call it simply an on-board computer may be an understatement – the sheer complexity involved in accurately controlling 1.5 tonnes of speeding metal is tough to quantify – and how close you come to one will depend on whether you live in a city that volunteers to the testing of these vehicles on its streets.

While you may indeed see these cars on the M6 in the next few years, the chances are that they won’t be navigating Britain’s roundabouts any time soon. The UK has been far slower off the mark in terms of testing than several states in the US and Japan, where the futuristic vehicles have already been let loose on their streets. Google’s driverless car has already covered 300,000 miles on Californian public roads, while Nissan’s driverless dynasty has been busy clocking up the miles on Japanese motorways since early 2013.

But how on earth have we come to be on the cusp of a technology that seems more at home in a science fiction movie than stuck in traffic next to us on the M25? The technology that allows all of this is known as the Lidar (light radar) system, which has been plucked straight off Google’s fleet of robotic cars that bring us such conveniences as Street View on Google Maps. Lidar technology is a laser that formulates a 360° picture of the car’s surroundings. This technology is so accurate it can precisely calculate the height of upcoming traffic lights and pick up pedestrians and cyclists. The resulting sensor data, mixed with video, is then used to control the steering, accelerating, indicating and braking until the driver touches the steering wheel or the brakes and he/she regains the control of the vehicle. Taking it one step (or street) further, Google has also become the first company to design a fully automated car which has a ‘go’ switch instead of any pedals or steering wheels.

Ready to go for a spin? You might not be rushing to act as a driverless test dummy just yet but plenty of car manufactures and government policy makers are climbing aboard.

To date, the driverless bandwagon includes companies such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and General Motors (who is developing its  own model), while manufacturers like Toyota, Audi and Lexus have all had pre-existing models tested with Google’s Lidar technology.

As fascinating as this all may be, before these cars become commonplace, a substantial amount of legislation needs to be created to regulate the correct use of these vehicles. Beyond concerns regarding accountability (should any accidents happen), there have also been security concerns raised about how these cars could be used as weaponry.

Ethical concerns also need to be addressed. Drivers, for instance, know that it is right to swerve to avoid an animal, though not so much as to endanger their passengers. But they are also prepared to take a little more risk in order to avoid a cat or a dog, which we instantly recognise as pets, than, say, a squirrel or raccoon. A driver understands that a speed limit of 50mph is different on a fine day compared to a wet and foggy day, when it’s considered to be closer to 40mph. How do we programme this kind of flexibility into a machine?

With that said however, once all the creases are ironed out – and with the phenomenal amount of investment, it seems certain that they will be ironed out – it may not be long until you pull up at the traffic lights only to see the driver in the next car on their phone, eating their lunch or reading a book, that is if you have time to look up from yours.