Doesn’t it seem like self-driving cars were one of those things you imagined were possible when you were a kid and now you can barely believe they’re a real thing? Some people see them as a feat of technology and engineering, while others take a more sombre view and see them as the beginning of an apocalyptic robot uprising.
No matter which team you’re on, there’s definitely a lot to unpack about the creation of self-driving cars, how they work and whether they’ll ever become mainstream. Here’s everything you need to know:
We’ve seen this phenomenon before…
If you think the entire concept of driverless cars just sounds too futuristic to be true, consider this:
Back in the late 1800s when the automobile came into use, people were used to travelling by horse and carriage. Indeed, they called the automobile the “horseless carriage” until the term “car” became mainstream. At the time, it made sense. Automobiles did the job of what a horse and carriage had done previously. It wasn’t until much later that a car became an object in its own right, and developed its own culture and shaped the way people thought about transportation.
The same might be said for the self-driving car. At some point in the future, a “driverless car” might be just as strange-sounding, until society adapts to it.
It started as a challenge
In 2009, Google announced its self-driving automobile project and began by hiring a team of Pentagon scientists, who had already been part of an unofficial, experimental challenge in designing robot-propelled cars. In just over a year, the scientists managed to build a system capable of navigating some of San Francisco’s trickiest streets with only minimal human intervention.
Following this, Elon Musk announced that his company Tesla would be hopping on the self-driving bandwagon, while Uber hired a bunch of robotics and AI scientists from Carnegie Mellon University, insinuating that the ridesharing service would one day incorporate self-driving cars into its business model too.
After this, big brand automobile companies – like Ford, GM and Mercedes – took notice and started dedicating large portions of their budget to research and innovation. In short, it became impossible for any auto company to ignore the fact that self-driving cars are a real, mainstream possibility that deserve attention.
Google, for its part, claims its self-driving cars could be on the market as soon as 2020.
So … how do they really work?
There are several technologies that work together to make self-driving cars capable of doing their jobs. The first is sensors, which work the same way things like parking sensors – you know, the ones that beep when your car is too close to an object – do. The sensors monitor blind spots, objects, and other factors to help a car navigate its way around a street network.
The second technology is internet connectivity. Self-driving cars tap into cloud computing to access traffic data, weather information, maps and surface conditions. This real-time information helps them navigate their immediate surroundings and planned trips.
The third is software algorithms. All that data accessed needs to be processed and analyzed, so naturally, this is where algorithms come into play. This is the most crucial part of the self-driving process, and it’s also the most subject to error.
Will self-driving cars ever really be mainstream?
Unfortunately, this isn’t an easy question to answer. That’s because it doesn’t depend so much on a single item being manufactured and shipped off, but on an entire system of technology that is constantly evolving.
Much of the hardware needed is available, if expensive. It’s the algorithms and the technology that need refinement before the self-driving car is a mainstream reality, not to mention safe. Uber’s pedestrian fatality in 2018 – which involved a self-driving car – brought some questions about this to light.
Besides being cool, can self-driving cars actually solve problems?
Proponents of the driverless car often point to statistics showing that most accidents on the road are caused by human error. Human drivers are, well, human, and can be impacted by things like anger, exhaustion, illness or just plain bad judgement. Advocates for self-driving cars often say that the main benefit of an autonomous car is that they’re not impacted by these things and thus, much safer.
Thanks to their internet sensors and connectivity, they’re always scanning and observing, making it hard to throw them off track.
Will self-driving cars ever become the norm? It’s a big question. But the amount of money and development being invested into the industry indicates it’s a very real possibility at some point in the future.