For this blog, I’ve decided to talk about self driving automobiles since I recently watched a TedTalk on “driverless car.” According to Chris Urmson, an engineer known for his work pioneering self-driving car technology, opened his speech at the TedTalk with a shocking statistics that sounds persuading to most of car drivers to abandon driving. (click here if you want to watch it, too) He said, “1.2 millions of people are killed on the world’s roads every year. In America alone, 33,000 people are killed each year. That’s the same as a 737 (a mid-sized airplane) falling out of the sky every working day.” I got blown away by his talk and therefore writing a blog on driverless car!!
To briefly explain what it is, an autonomous car is a vehicle that is “capable of sensing its environment and navigating without human input.” (duh) Though slightly vary depending on companies, technologies that are used for autonomous cars generally consist of radar, light, GPS, optometry (using data from monitor sensors to estimate change in position over time), computer vision, etc.
How does it work? – soft & hardware combination
Self-driving cars are equipped with the most cutting-edge software to make sure they can function as best as possible without human interventions. After many years of testing, self driving cars use the laser based radar system called LIDAR (short for light detection and ranging) which pinpoints the location of the car to a quarter of a foot, and additional sensor will intervene when there’s any obstacles within 15-30 inches to make passengers safe. In order to make the car convenient, the cars use deep learning technology to review cameras and GPS data to find the fastest way possible, which I find it pretty similar to what’s available today such as Waze.
These sensors detect the edges of roads and identify lanes by bouncing pulses of light off the car’s surroundings. For example, if the driver falls asleep while driving and the car steps on the lane, the bouncing pulses will be sent to the driver to notify the possible danger. Video cameras detect things like traffic light, read road signs and keep track of other vehicles, while looking out for pedestrians and other obstacles. Another sensor called ultrasonic sensors in the wheels can detect the position of curbs and other vehicles when parking. Last but not least, a central computer analyses all of the data from various sensors to manipulate the basic driving parts such as steering, acceleration and braking. Hardware and software engineering is the key to this newly developed field, and they need to be worked together in order to make the better and safer self-driving cars.
Here comes Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Google, etc.
Companies like Ford, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Google and many more are racing to build a smarter and safer autonomous vehicle. Ford, for example, recently tripled its investment in its autonomous fleet. Another example, Mercedes-Benz has been adding self-driving features to the cars they launched.
History of Self-Driving Car
Surprisingly, the idea of self-driving car can go back to as far as Leonardo da Vinci’s Self-Propelled Cart, a distance precursor to the car. Fast forwarding to 1800’s, the idea of a transportation driving itself continued to develop with the advance of technology. In 1868, Robert Whitehead’s invention of torpedo that could propel itself underwater was game changer, enabling wide range of weaponry, aircraft and other autonomous devices to follow through. A few decades after, Autopilot system for aircrafts developed in 1933 allowed us to travel long distance. In 1961, space race was in full swing, and researchers came up with vehicles on the moon. Stanford Cart was built by Stanford graduate student. It was truly the first self-driving car, for it was programmed to detect and autonomously follow the lines on the ground. One of its features that use cameras remain as key element of today’s self-driving cars.
After groundbreaking invention of Stanford Cart, researchers and scientists started tackling one problem – self-driving car that a person can ride on. Decades of testing and experimenting has made it possible for Tesla to invent “Autopilot” feature, which allows us hands-free control for highway and freeway driving. New features are continuously being developed even today!
There are safety issues that have been brought up involving self-driving cars. In May of 2016, first fatal crash involving a self-driving car occurred, and in the following July another driver was killed at the wheel of his autonomous car. And I thought, if I were an engineer and were to program for self-driving car, when the car is in a situation where it’s about to run over a pedestrian, should I make the system so that it injures the driver or the pedestrian? This is something that’s not easily answered and everyone is debating over. Another concerning factor is the possibility of hackers or terrorism. If the entire system runs on computer system, we can’t completely ignore the vulnerability of computer system being hacked. Until then, human passengers need to be somewhat alert in case the car has sensory or technical difficulties.
Even though it is obvious that benefits outweigh the harms in the long run, self-driving cars are still in the process of being tested and developed. But I see potentials in such technology and believe that it will solve many of the problems that we are currently going through from man-caused accidents to simply traffic.
Interesting fun fact about Chris Urmson that I mentioned in the introduction:
Chris Urmson – the guy who led the self-driving car project at Google and stood at the podium at TedEx- is now a successful entrepreneur of a start-up called Aurora Innovation. I came across a recent article published only a couple of weeks ago is titled “Competing With the Giants in Race to Build Self-Driving Cars” (click here to read). It talks about how such a small company like his own is now providing its technology to Hyundai and Volkswagen, one of the largest car making companies.) I was excited for him to make one step forward in his passion.
It was interesting to find how fast this cutting-edge technology is being developed and put into use. It turns out few of my friends’ parents are driving self-driving cars, and this is crazy because self driving cars are not just fictional inventions but something that I can easily find nearby. I can already imagine only in a couple decades that everyone drives autonomous cars.