Fast Approaching:
Driverless Cars


March 2013

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Driving is how you get things done yet it also stops you from getting even more things done. If only the act of driving were a thing of the past and you could become a passenger, get out your work, and let the vehicle be a real-life Jeeves. Well, a few companies are getting us closer to that futuristic feeling, though there's still a long way to go.

Toyota's Test

John Hanson, national manager for environmental, safety, and quality communications for Toyota, says it's gone this far because of the current state of the art in sensors and processing. "There are three basic aspects to how it works," he says. "It's the vehicle's ability to perceive its environment—actually see what's going on. The second part is it can process what it's "looking at." It's one thing to see it, another to understand it. The third part is the response. After it perceives its surroundings, can it respond, and do it quicker and with more precision than the driver?"

Toyota’s self-driving car is equipped with sensors and automated control systems which respond to the vehicle's surroundings. Image: Toyota

But Hanson says the autonomous ability wasn't created to lose the driver but to gain safety. "It's not so much an endgame but was specifically a research project to use to further explore an integrated or layered approach to safety. What we showed in Vegas (at the Consumer Electronics Show) was a pre-crash collision system. Our current pre-crash automotive technologies have been around for 10 years and have been evolving." Hanson feels the greatest barrier may actually be acceptance, not technological challenge. "Look at how hard it was for people to accept the functionality of a car that parallel parks," he says. "Many people identify themselves with driving. To give that up? Not as easy as you would think."

Google’s driverless car (top). Image: Google Audi’s driverless car (bottom). Image: Audi

Google and Audi

Of course, Google is also in the game. In the first 300,000 miles, the Internet search leader reported that it hadn't had a single accident. With cameras and computers, it's become the eyes of the driver—but it also got the attention of the eyes of Californians, becoming legalized within the Golden State. Google has driverless cars as earmarked to be available within five years.

Audi is a player in the market as well, utilizing radar and LIDAR (light, detection and ranging). It boasts of an app that has the car show up in front of your house…or you can get out at the mall and have it go park itself. It also isn't afraid of heights as it was able to find its way to the top of Pike's Peak. Not satisfied, Audi is presently working on a car that actually can make traffic a selling point. While the vehicle is crawling along in gridlock, you can do anything you choose.

Of course, it's easy to see the positive—until you ask the driver of that yellow cab you're flagging down. With so many in the driving and delivery industries, there could be countless jobs potentially lost. Even the valet is in trouble. And, for every fare from out of town who enjoyed the conversation of someone who knew the area, the feeling of isolation may be amplified just a little bit more.

But change appears to be coming, even if it feels like it's crawling through traffic at the moment.

Eric Butterman is an independent writer.

It’s not so much an endgame but was specifically a research project to use to further explore an integrated or layered approach to safety.

John Hanson, Toyota

 
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by Eric Butterman, ASME.org