'Driverless' cars will be on UK public roads by 2015. Yes, that soon.
But how do they work? If 'driverless' cars are supposed to supplant human concentration, are they completely computer-operated, or will humans have the ability to regain control of the vehicle, if for example, the computer dies or goes haywire? Will there be a steering wheel, even?
So much has been written about the impending introduction of ‘driverless’ cars, but little has actually been said about how they will work, especially since the term ‘driverless vehicle’ is quite vague.
With ‘automatic’ cars we already have cruise control, anti-lane drift and automatic braking which still require a certain degree of autonomy. So where is the leap from acceptable ‘automatic’ to freaky ‘driverless’?
According to the BBC, ‘driverless’ refers to “vehicles that take charge of steering, accelerating, indicating and braking during most if not all of a journey between two points, much in the same way aeroplanes can be set to autopilot.”
“vehicles that take charge of steering, accelerating, indicating and braking during most if not all of a journey between two points, much in the same way aeroplanes can be set to autopilot.”
However, roads are more populated than the skies, so how will ‘driverless’ cars work with the plethora of unpredictable obstacles on the road, like pedestrians, roadworks, broken traffic lights?
Apparently a range of technologies are being developed to counter these problems. Using light detection sensors (Lidar), information about what is surrounding the vehicle can be captured every second.
Another technique the vehicle developers are using, according to the BBC, is "computer vision" which uses software to understand 360-degree images captured by cameras attached to the vehicle. This will alert the car to pedestrians, cyclists, roadworks and other objects that might be in the path of the car.
Other sensors the ‘driverless’ cars will make use of will be GPS, radar, and ultrasonic sensors.
It is still debated whether the autonomous car manufacturers will abandon the traditional steering wheel and pedal combo, like the prototype Google launched in May, or leave the wheel in place to allow the driver to regain full control of the car if they so wished.
In any case, the success of the ‘driverless’ car will depend more on a leap of psychology, than technology.
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