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THE DRIVERLESS CAR, FROM FICTION TO REALITY

If thirty years ago I was told that one day we will hop in the car, press a button, entre our destination through the onboard computer or the Navigation System and “off” the car drives us to where we want to go, I would not have believed such a fictitious story. Nowadays this is becoming a fact. Sure enough many driverless vehicles are already being tested in several European countries and in the USA. This wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the latest technologies and innovations in the automotive field. As automation technology has progressed, especially in the decades after the invention of the integrated circuit, more and more functions have been added to automobiles, relieving the driver of much of the mundane moment-to-moment decision making that may be regarded as having made driving careful.

It is true that: “The necessity is the mother of invention”. One might wonder “why do we need to invent driverless cars”? Well the answer is quite easy; one of the main reasons is safety. It is safer for the passengers to be driven by the car itself rather than by a human. Most of the car accidents are the outcome of careless and unskilled driving; while very few are due to mechanical faults in the cars themselves or due to bad weather and poor road conditions. The increase in number of drivers being distracted by using cell phones and even watching TV and movies while driving, increases the number of car accidents. Remember that car accidents cause hundreds of thousands of fatalities and injuries all over the world each year. Around 40,000 lives could be saved each year in the US if cars could drive themselves.

However, hope remains as always, and, soon enough, you will no longer have to pay attention and do all the concentration yourself. Yes, with the current developments of artificial intelligence and the evolution of technology, your car will do all of that for you. Automakers are working on complex systems that will enable your car to drive it-self. Doing so will minimize deaths caused by car accidents by around 50%.

You might be surprised to know that your car already contains driverless technology.  Any intelligent system that can interfere to modify the driver’s way of driving so as to execute them in a more efficient and safer way in order to prevent accidents due to careless driving is considered in a way or another to be part of a driverless system. Examples of such systems are the Anti Lock Brakes (ABS), Traction Control (TC), Electronic Stability Control (ESC), Active Suspension, Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) and Lane Departure Warning System (LDWS) among others, which all help improve braking, stability, road handling and safety of the car and passengers therefore minimizing the risk of accidents caused by human errors.

 

When a car is braking hard without anti-lock brakes, the driver himself has to pump the brake pedal in order to prevent the wheels from locking up. If wheels do lock up, the car may become beyond the driver’s control, sending him into a bloody mess of an accident.

However, with anti-lock brakes, the car pumps the brakes for and better than you. The system can detect if the wheels lock up and take appropriate measures, with a faster response than the human body, in order to fix this problem.

                                                             

Another type of driverless technology is traction or stability control. Like anti-lock brakes, this system has a faster reaction time than a driver ever could have. When it detects that the car is starting to lose control, it works to restore the car to its initial, stable position on the road by constantly monitoring a car’s longitudinal and lateral acceleration, the speed of each wheel as well as other inputs. Unlike a driver-triggered brake, which is applied to all four wheels of a car, this system can apply brakes in individual wheels without the help of the driver.

Let’s dive deeper into a more futuristic approach. Certain luxury cars contain a system called a Pre-safe System. This system anticipates car crashes and takes appropriate measures in order to keep car occupants safe. For example, while a car is approaching a certain stopped vehicle, an alarm might go off indicating the presence of that vehicle. The system might also prepare the brakes so that even a slight tap on them will apply their full force. The system, at the same time, starts to reduce engine power. All of these actions add up and result in a much less fatal accident with the vehicle. Finally, if the system detects that a crash can't be avoided it will prepare the airbags for deployment and tighten all of the seat belts, keeping occupants safe. It can do all of these jobs in less time than it takes for a driver to step on the brakes.

In addition, we’ve all probably heard of Cruise Control (which maintains a car’s speed without the driver having to keep pressing on the gas pedal). However, it isn’t completely driverless because the driver still has to apply brakes when he sees incoming cars. What is driverless is called Adaptive Cruise Control, which is found in only a few cars today. What this system does is detect objects in front of the car, their speed and their distance from the car. If the system detects that this object is moving slower than the car, it alters its speed appropriately in order to keep the two bodies at a safe distance from each other. When the car in front of you comes to a complete stop so does your car too; this is achieved without the driver having to apply the brakes.

 

An important driverless technology used in some cars today is the Park Assist system. Systems in current cars are usually used in parallel parking, though other options are available in some cars.

The driver though still has to regulate the car’s speed by applying the brakes himself. Once the self-parking system is initiated, the car’s computer system takes control of the steering wheel. The driver himself moves forward near the front car. When the system detects that the car should stop, it signals the driver to stop the car himself.

It then orders the driver to shift into reverse and once the driver removes his foot off the brake pedal, the car begins steering by itself perfectly into position between the front and rear car. The system then signals the driver to shift into drive and fixes its position between the two cars. While this might not seem so driverless, it is still a good step in driverless technology. What makes these systems possible is the use of sensors, cameras, radars, lasers, ultra sonic and GPS in addition to Electronic Control Units (ECU) which are considered the brains. The ECU collects information from different types of sensors, which are called inputs and once this data is analyzed, the ECU will send signals to actuators, which are called outputs, in order to execute a function; this is done in few milliseconds.

A driverless car is an autonomous vehicle that can drive itself from one point to another without assistance from a driver. One such vehicle in mind is the FROG. The vehicle is completely driverless and can plan its own route from A to B.

 

 

 

 Well, two driverless cars running on solar power have already been dispatched from Rome to Shanghai. The cars, vans, contain laser scanners, cameras (7), GPS sensors and lots of computing power. Traveling the 8,000 miles of the old Silk Road over three months, the cars will have to withstand hot, humid and freezing climates. The main objective behind this solar-powered journey is to perform an extensive test, which shows that the present technology has developed enough for the deployment of non-polluting and no-oil based autonomous vehicles in real conditions. It is expected that after the cars are perfected, they could be used in agriculture, mining and commercial transportation.

 

The Autonomous Audi TTS, called Shelley, will scale the famous Pikes Peak rally track all by itself, with no assistance from drivers whatsoever. It can reach speeds of up to 220kms/h. Shelley’s trunk is loaded with computer gadgetry and a $100,000 GPS system that will help direct the piloting software through the course’s 20 kms, 156-turn ascent to more than 4200 m above sea level. With the exception of a couple of exterior fixtures on the roof, Shelley looks and acts like a normal Audi TTS, running on gasoline and handling via standard braking and steering systems. But unlike the normal version, a software package designed by Stanford’s Dynamic Design Lab will execute the actual driving maneuvers, which are designed to closely mimic those of an actual racecar driver.

 

 

Another driverless car in development is the Electric Networked-Vehicle (EN-V), a two-seater urban transport concept vehicle it's developing in conjunction with the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. (SAIC). It runs on lithium ion batteries that can recharge from a standard home outlet. Using its GPS system, vehicle-to-vehicle communications network, sensor and camera system allow it to be driven both manually, and autonomously once it is given a set destination to go to. All this technology would allow it to navigate urban environments with ease.

 

 

As you can see, the driverless car revolution is near. It can be compared to the automobiles revolution even. Whether we like it or not, driverless cars are the future. If we are ever to hope of avoiding everyday accidents, driverless cars must be implemented. General Motors is aiming to get some out on the street by as early as 2018. This will reduce traffic. Less traffic, less pollution, less death. A promising future is apparent for this technology.

Written by: Pascal Hayek

 

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