What You Need to Know About Driverless Vehicles

On May 27th, 2014, Google introduced a group of interested people (including one man who was blind and, obviously, unable to drive)  to a product that might change the way we look at vehicles for better or worse. For the first time, these people felt the thrill of having a digital chauffeur take them around what seemed like the safety of a parking lot. Everyone, including the early pioneers who brought us the auto industry, has something to say about this vehicle. One thing remains certain, however: The introduction of driverless vehicles seems inevitable. It’s time we start understanding them.

driverlesscar-safety

Among all of the things that people ask about driverless cars, perhaps their biggest concern is about safety. After all, if the car doesn’t have a steering column, it’s difficult to think of how things like defensive driving will work on these things. How can we be sure that a company which specializes in search and advertising products will manufacture a vehicle that accounts for passenger and driver safety in the same way that other auto manufacturers do? The truth is we’re never sure.

Just before the autumn of 2012, we got our answer. On August 7, 2012, Mashable reported that Google has tested its driverless vehicles over 300,000 miles of road in various conditions without experiencing a single accident. The report puts this into perspective, demonstrating that the average American driver experiences an accident roughly every 10 years, or 165,000 miles. Until late spring 2014, Google’s cars were just regular vehicles (Toyota Prius) retrofitted with a laser guidance system. Since they still had steering columns, drivers would have the ability to take over and steer the car out of harm’s way. Then in May, the company has announced that it will scrap the steering column altogether and use its own custom-made vehicle.

If you’d ask me, the data attests well enough to the safety of driverless cars.

Besides the fact that you may not have to spend as much fuel idling around parking lots looking for a spot, there seems to be little study on how driverless cars affect fuel efficiency. However, fuel consumption is greatly influenced by the way you drive a car. In this manner, a BMW M3 can use less fuel than a Toyota Prius for the same distance. For proof of this, see this very thing happening in Top Gear below:

So, will Google’s driverless car be more fuel efficient? It depends on both the inherent fuel efficiency of the car and the style with which it is driven by its digital master. Chances are, it may be much more efficient than the average car of the same weight and engine class simply because of the way it will be driven (smooth acceleration, soft on curves, etc.).

For one, Volvo is also developing a self-driving vehicle and testing it in Sweden. Some companies aren’t happy about the changes, though, such as General Motors, which feels that this is a threat that will remove any grasp they have on the current auto market.

But the auto industry isn’t really voicing many serious concerns just yet. The most vociferous critics are individuals on the web, some of which don’t really fully understand driverless technology, others having legitimate concerns. “What if GPS and terrestrial transmissions go down?” one person asks. The answer to this is complicated, and since Google isn’t commenting on what exactly will happen, I suspect the car can inform the driver before asking for instructions.

“What about weather conditions like rain, snow, or fog?” Heavy rain and snow are indeed issues for the car, since it can’t detect lane markers on snow-covered roads and detects the heavy rain as obstacles. These are things Google will have to work on, but it doesn’t present an impossible hitch in the project. It’s just an obstacle to development like any other.

Now that I’ve said everything I have to say about driverless cars, it’s your turn to speak. If you have some thoughts about any driverless vehicle projects, please leave a comment below.

8 comments

  1. I’m all for driver-less cars. Driving a car is far less complicated than flying a passenger jet, and we have had that technology for a while. I do have concerns about removing the ability for a driver to take over. Software does have the occasional bug. Otherwise, yeah the time is here for driver-less cars. Go Google and Volvo!

  2. I can’t wait! This is the greatest thing ever! I imagine that both types of cars would cohabitate for a while, which is good. Then I could chose to use my driverless car or drive my 67 mustang!!

  3. I am concerned by the low speeds that have been tested. Based on the speeds I have seen, you would be lucky to get cross town in a major city in 2-3 hours (without obstacles or not in rush hour). I am also concerned with how they will work with the cars having drivers that are not really “safe”. All in all I see lots of problems to overcome, but would like to see driving taken out of the hands of humans when it makes sense for ALL vehicles.

  4. 1. Getting rid of the human drivers makes it completely unnecessary to drive defensively.

    2. The average human averages between 10 and 30km/h in a day of driving. Autonomous cars will be much faster, even if they only do a constant 40km/h. I imagine that pretty quickly they will be much faster than that.

    3. The fact that they will able to maintain a constant speed means that they will achieve previously unheard-of levels of fuel economy.

    4. Obstacle detection, communication with each other, and more constant speed will mean that existing obstacles (traffic-control measures), such as traffic lights, are also completely unnecessary.

    Software and automatic control systems for driving cars do have bugs, but in my opinion they have less bugs than humans driving cars.

  5. Their are times when I would prefer to have the car drive itself, but for the most part I enjoy driving to most of my destinations.

  6. This is not new technology. Back in the 1980s Audi had a car that would drive by itself. In fact it had a mind of its own. You park it in a garage, then all of a sudden it would take off through the garage wall or through the door. The company blamed the drivers for leaving the cars in gear and running but there were too many incidents for that explanation to be true. Unless, of course, you assumed that all Audi divers were witless morons.

    But seriously. Driverless cars may work wonderfully in sci-fi but reality is quite different. Has Google done any “hackability” tests on these cars? Can control of the car be taken over remotely by a miscreant? We have zombie PCs. Can we have zombie cars in the future? Can we have “ransom cars” where the passengers are trapped in the car and told that if they don’t pay up, they are going for a one way ride? The possibilities for mis-use of self-driving cars are limitless. What about the real-life interaction between driver-controlled and driverless vehicles?

    From the pictures i have seen, the driverless cars look like a cross between a Kozy Koupe and Herbie the Love Bug.

  7. Two weeks ago, 60 Minutes CBS program had a report on internet/WiFi security. In it they interviewed the director of DARPA. While not revealing any secret information, he did talk about some of the projects being worked on at DARPA. One of the projects was remote control of modern cars. The segment showed that with a laptop and software developed by the programmer, he could hack into late model car’s onboard computers and take over any function they controlled. He remotely steered the car, he accelerated it, he braked it, he locked and unlocked the doors, he turned on and off radio, windshield wipers, horn, lights, all without the driver being able to do anything about it. In effect, the programmer was driving the car with the driver and passengers being along for the ride.

    The same can be done to driverless cars. Until the onboard computers can be secured to prevent this kind of manipulations, driverless cars are a non-starter. In fact, if the general driving public knew how easy it is to compromise onboard computers in today’s cars, they would cease buying them and go back to pre-computerized cars of the 1960s and 1970s

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