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Driverless Cars: Are We Nearly There Yet?

Bill Marshall
Engineer, PhD, lecturer, freelance technical writer, blogger & tweeter interested in robots, AI, planetary explorers and all things electronic. STEM ambassador. Designed, built and programmed my first microcomputer in 1976. Still learning, still building, still coding today.


September 12, 2018 07:52

Fully-autonomous vehicles will certainly be universal at some point in the future. 2050? Probably not. 2100? Almost certainly. Who would have predicted in 1918 that the telephone and early radio experiments would lead to the communication technology available today? The concept didn't even exist. But we do have the concept, and the need, for autonomous vehicles. The problems will be identified and solved; mistakes and disasters will occur; and the pattern of civilisation will adapt around them. But it will happen.

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September 12, 2018 07:52

Hi Bill and thank you for an excellent article. I would agree that AI is limited at this point in time and can certainly be improved upon especially with LIDAR, Radar and other sensor tech as you have mentioned. I must also add that the advancement in technology will allow, in my opinion, driverless cars that are generally or statistically safer than human drivers in years to come.

Another thing, one could perhaps create a set of general rules when using driverless cars such that in built up areas either the road user may not engage the auto-pilot or the user must be alert and ready to take control at any moment. While if you are travelling on the freeway or main roads, one needs not be so alert. So the vehicle could advise: "Leaving city boundary area. You may engage autopilot." or alternatively when approaching a built up area: "You are approaching a built up area please take control in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1." The idea is to get the user to understand the level of alertness required for the situation and not presume that the AI can handle every possible situation. In some places it wouldn't make sense to use the autopilot such as in Delhi that is so congested with pedestrians and tuktuks. Snow and heavy rain are also exceptions and anyone engaging autopilot in such conditions certainly seriously need to think twice. Interesting topic.

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September 10, 2018 14:45

I disagree with your conclusion. We *will* have fully autonomous cars, and without an AI breakthrough. Sufficient technology will eventually mean that cars will recognise hazards sufficiently well. This, combined with them communicating with each other and the road infrastructure, will mean that accidents will occur less frequently and (perhaps) will lower injury levels (but this is not essential) than they do today. That is, they'll be "good enough"

There will undoubtedly be some interesting discussions about ethics and responsibility and accountability but it will happen eventually. The awkward time will be the transition between now and then.

August 28, 2018 10:01

Whenever I think of Driverless cars my imagination skips to the Tom Cruise movie, Minority Report...vast networks of weaving road lanes with vehicles travelling in all directions, vertical, horizontal, parallel, everywhere...from your door to your destination. No people out cyclists, no deer, no jaywalkers (unless they have Spiderman abilities). This imagined scenario is in my mind how it would have to be, a complete rebuild of the entire road based network. The idea of trying to create a fool-proof self-driving car on our existing roads and infrastructure, however noble, is like trying to turn lead into gold.

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August 28, 2018 10:00

@Ten22 Lead into gold? No problem - a few more years of quantum mechanics research and we'll be there! :-) Fully-autonomous cars running on today's roads with no external assistance? No way. Get to grips with QM, and teleportation will be just around the corner. We won't need driverless cars then.....

August 23, 2018 08:28

Another great in depth article Bill - thanks.
At the end of the day with our current roads and range of vehicles and technologies on them I agree it can only be an "assist" function. But this would be a great value on its own providing the human driver with greater information.

Just thinking of driving in an automated and relaxed way and getting an alarm "call to action", how long would it take the driver to gather the information of what's going on around him and safely take control of any required avoidance....

Perhaps with the huge issues of inner city transport that is where automated driver less vehicles would benefit. Some (huge) investment on route and lane guidance and only specific high tech connected vehicles being allowed in the zone. Special cycle lanes with bikes having a transponder of some sort identifying them and people only allowed to cross roads at specific points - no jaywalkers! Could be highly efficient and increase safety.

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September 12, 2018 07:58

@Boss We should already have transponders in our vehicles! With a collision avoidance system as used in air craft and shipping. I saw a demonstration of one problem with driverless technology, if the vehicle infront of the driverless vehicle suddenly swerves around a stationary vehicle the driverless vehicle cannot react in time. This can happen even with an alert driver in the same circumstances but if a transponder had alerted the driver of the vehicle they could not see, accident avoided.

September 14, 2018 09:56

@J Dan G A recent report: highlights problems with current-model cars fitted with Adaptive Cruise Control and Lane Keeping. It finds the latter distinctly unreliable on all of them to a greater or less degree. Not funny, but I couldn't help laughing at one example of unintended action. The system designers have at least recognised that real-world lane markings get worn away or covered up and have built in a back-up. In slow-moving traffic, in the absence of lane markings the ACC radar can 'lock on' to the car ahead and follow it. Unfortunately - bet you can see what's coming - if the car in front turns off down a slip-road the car behind follows. It conjures up images of whole convoys of cars with their enraged owners following each other off the motorway. I can see most owners of ADAS-fitted cars turning off these systems after their first 'scare'. It would be a shame if people are put off using potentially life-saving technology by introducing it too early, before even basic bugs are ironed out.

August 28, 2018 10:01

@Boss Thanks! You're dead right about the problem of 'handover' from auto back to manual control. In the early days of development, it was rather glossed over in the general excitement. How will the auto-driver 'know' it's making a mistake? In the second Tesla crash when Autopilot seemingly drove the car into a crash barrier, what did the human driver think was going on? Perhaps they noticed the movement but hesitated to take back control because, after all, it is an autopilot and must know what it's doing. The requirement that drivers should be vigilant at all times is clearly ridiculous as I suggested at the end - what's the point of automation if you effectively still have to drive the car? It's a cop-out and it won't wash. This is why most car-makers are skipping Level 3 automation and aiming for production of Level 4 cars. Eventually.

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