5 things driverless cars will do to change our future?

The race for building the world’s first commercially available driverless car is on. Google seems to be leading the pack and in its own charismatic style has been very open about it. Elon Musk’s Tesla is considered the second best with their cars having almost automated the driving process. Tech favourites, Apple also seem to be in the race but everything is under wraps, as of now, and there is not even a hint of what Apple is planning to make, the car, the software or simply make the car accessible with your Apple ID.

Once part of science fiction, driverless cars will soon be a part of our lives and with major automobile manufacturers such as General Motors, Toyota, Ford investing in the technology, prototypes of driverless cars will soon be seen on the roads. Before we get there, a quick review.


The concept of a driverless or autonomous car has been around for close to a century but progress was slow due to unavailability of technology. For a car to be autonomous, it needs to know how far points A and B are, know the possible routes between these points, see where it is heading and take a decision in case of a sudden event.


autonomous car. Image credit: drvingspirit.com
KITT, from Knight Rider, was probably the best known autonomous car


The first of the problems have been solved by the ready availability of GPS systems that can spot you down to a square foot these days. With availability of digital maps, determining routes is not much of hassle. Sensor technology is now available to masses and a simple device like LiDAR (Light Detection and Radar) can help a car see for itself irrespective of snow, fog, rain or storm. All this data needs to be brought together on a single platform and data analysed on an on-going basis to allow the car to be driven autonomously. With so much computing and programming prowess needed, it is no surprise then, that Google is leading the pack of driverless cars.

With their prototype, unveiled in 2014 (and shown in the picture above) Google has clocked 1.5 million miles of autonomous driving on the streets, with a single incident so far (no humans/ animals harmed). Like I said before, this is the only open project in this area and the closest human civilization has come to autonomous driving. But why are so many tech companies behind this idea. What do they have in store for us? How will they change our future? Today, we look at 5 things that will change in the future. 

1.   Increase Road Safety
The greatest promise that driverless cars can deliver on is reduction of human errors and better safety on roads. Road accidents claim 1.25 million lives globally every year, which are largely due to the human behind the wheel. By successfully, removing the human behind driving, we also eliminate the human error that is responsible for these deaths. However, changing this habit will be a slow and arduous process. Upgrading every car on the road to the an automated system is possible with third party kits like Cruise or we simply need to phase out our current cars with driverless ones, after they are available.

2.   Get rid of traffic lights
Traffic lights are a great way to control traffic and regulate its flow but are also responsible for pollution and wastage of fuel and precious time. A study led by researchers at MIT and published in PLoS One has shown that by slotting vehicles into batches that move at a controlled speed before approaching an intersection, one can do away with traffic lights and long waiting at intersections.




While this sounds like a great plan, it requires that cars approaching an intersection can talk to each other and segregate into slots and also access information about the intersection. This can happen, if all cars are connected to a common grid and work even better if every car is being driven with the same mind set. More appropriately put, the driving needs to be more consistent and hence, synchronised to an automated system, something a human would have a lot of difficulty adhering too. 

So, imagine your commute to work where you legally can send emails, make phone calls, read the newspaper, reply to a text, make a presentation AND not have to wait a traffic lights. Well, you can do all this because you car drives autonomously and you are passenger free to do what your hear desires. Would you give up driving for such convenience?

3.   Free up our roads and our cities
Often we speak about cars as our lifelines, our absolute necessities, as our saviour against the unspeakable atrocities of public transport. But little do we realise that most of the 1300 odd kilogram beauties that we buy spend their regular day, resting. Study by the RAC Foundation published in 2012, revealed that cars spend 80% of their time parked at home and another 16% parked elsewhere (office parking, shopping mall, paid parking slots), which leaves them at just 4% usage. As global population surges, the number of cars is on the rise, thereby, unnecessarily, clogging our parking spots and streets.

A study at University of Texas predicts that at 90% market penetration of driverless cars, freeways in the US would actually become free by 60% leading to faster travel times and lane utilisation due to cooperative adaptive cruise control, which is cars, moving together at constant speeds without excessive acceleration or braking, would improve to 80%.

One might argue that the time taken to achieve 90% market penetration would also increase the presence of other cars on the road. Nevertheless, most of these cars would be autonomous and still yield better results than manual driving.

4.   Work as cab services
With such high idle times and high cost of making a driverless car (present estimate is close to $1,00,000), it seems less likely that autonomous car will be part of every household. This is good news because parking lots can become gardens again and offices won’t dedicate vast areas for parking these sleeping beauties.


Signature Lyft taxis might be driverless in the future. Image credit: Wikipedia
Popular taxi service Lyft might soon have a driverless fleet to boast about. 

Instead, what is likely to happen is that makers of these cars will continue to own them and instead let them out as taxi services. So, lets say a fleet of Google, Tesla, Ford, Toyota branded autonomous cars will be available for everybody to hire from and a simple app will bring the nearest available autonomous car to your location in a matter of minutes. Alternatively, taxi aggregators like Uber and Lyft will have their own fleet and conitnue providing taxi services in the future, just without drivers. Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick has admitted that ride sharing is still expensive because the driver needs to be paid for his job. Removing the driver from the car can make ride sharing less expensive and Uber has been funding research in mapping and self-driving technologies at the University of Arizona to achieve its long term goal. Similarly, the pompous taxi provider Lyft has partnered with General Motors to make a fleet of autonomous cars. This partnership comes at a $500 million investment from General Motors, who become Lyft’s car providers in the short term while also allowing them to players in the next generation of driving and transport systems.

The availability of apps, connectivity of cars and mobile payment wallets will also make carpooling easier in the future, ushering in a new method of mass transportation.

5.   Pave the way for our future
Getting the driver out of his seat means cars can be made smaller but with more room for passengers. Google’s prototype looks like a cute cross between the much famed cheapest car, Tata Nano and the popular and expensive Beetle. Since other projects are still being carried our secretively, we do not know much about what their designers have in mind. However, Kinetik, a London based venture capital firm, has planned the launch of season of driverless car racing this year. 


Roborace: The race of driverless cars Image credit: motor1.com

Called Roborace, the event will comprise of 10 teams with 2 electric cars each, who will race across popular circuits in the world, driverless. Due to its similarity to Formula E series that is catching up, Roborace will be held alongside Formula E races and although the format is yet to be unveiled, the prototype cars, designed by Daniel Simon, the designer of  Tron: Legacy automobiles, have been showcased. Designed to clock 300 kph, these futuristic cars will pave the way for development of driverless technology and probably even, new means of entertainment that does not risk human lives, like Formula 1 does.

Driverless cars still have to cross one major hurdle; the hurdle of policy and regulation in different countries, which is painstakingly slow. This alone would determine how quickly driverless cars will become a part of our present!  



References: 

Tachet R, Santi P, Sobolevsky S, Reyes-Castro LI, Frazzoli E, Helbing D, & Ratti C (2016). Revisiting Street Intersections Using Slot-Based Systems. PloS one, 11 (3) PMID: 26982532

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6 comments:

  1. The article is a good compilation of what are we looking at in the future of transportation. I want to emphasise some additional points.

    The greatest hurdle in deploying the cars for masses is the raw computational power that the cars need to possess (An estimated 5 desktop capability per car). That makes design more expensive. Second, Most self-driving cars seem to operate seamlessly on the streets that has been meticulously mapped into a software street view. This enables the self-driving cars know exactly how the street is, and has to take care of only obstacles. Such a system is not yet mapped in many countries. Also these cars are not immune to occasional software crash.

    On the bright Side, Research shows that these cars can be more fuel efficient and much more safe (You have already talked about it). There is some research on a method called Tagging (Or also known as Road Train). A set of vehicles can tag with another vehicle which is moving ahead of it (almost bumper to bumper distance). This drastically increases fuel efficiency due to aerodynamics properties. This is further by V2V radio that controls every car together. If one car on the front applies a break all the tagged cars simultaneously does the same.

    Reference: http://www.nature.com/news/autonomous-vehicles-no-drivers-required-1.16832

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey Varun,

    Its always nice to hear your views.

    You do make a good point about street maps not being available for many countries. But companies like Google are working on it and as more and more people start using smartphones, we could be able to crowdsource maps from users in the near future.

    Regarding the computing power needed per car, as always, we can expect Moore's law to be broken here and faster computing available in the next 1-2 years.

    Tagging sounds great (also similar to slotting as shown in the MIT video in the post) and with other technologies should make our roads safer and less congestion prone.

    But the bigger question is, would people feel safe giving up driving and handing over the reins of their automobile to a computer?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Driverless cars became a growing concept after electric and new-generation cars. Most probably it helps to change the future of the automobile world and therefore different automobile manufacturing companies are promoting the concept of driverless cars. It definitely changes our future and put a big impact on technology.
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  5. Driverless cars are not cheap at the moment but as with everything new, pricing will come down in the coming years and become economical enough for all to buy. Energy efficiency should actually be better since you can program the car as per specifications set out by the manufacturer and would take out variability of driving preferences. Wouldn't you agree?

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