Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Future of Automobiles - Driverless Cars

In 2007, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sponsored an event called the Urban Challenge. Recognizing the utility of self-driving vehicles for military purposes, DARPA invited 11 teams from universities and corporations to build vehicles that would be able to navigate a course through a makeshift city without any human interference. Furthermore, the teams would have to obey all the traffic laws and avoid any collisions with other vehicles, buildings, or obstacles. Six of the teams were able to complete the contest, led by Carnegie Mellon University.

The most successful self-driving cars use cameras and lasers mounted on every side of the car to “see” their surroundings, and send the images to a computer in the car to process them in real time. The technology has already advanced to the point where computers can read road signs, detect other fast-moving objects (like cars), and generally obey the traffic laws. General Motors has announced that they will start testing driverless vehicles in 2015, and hopes to have them on the road by 2018.

The biggest technical obstacle that still needs to be overcome involves dealing with unexpected situations. The driverless car prototypes, such as Carnegie Mellon’s vehicle “Boss,” are fairly good at recognizing and obeying stop signs and traffic lights. However, these vehicles are built with the assumption that all other cars on the road will obey the laws as well. Most humans can hit the brakes if another car runs a red light or if an animal runs out in front of our car, but unfortunately the driverless cars are not quite there yet. However, with the speed at which driverless technology is progressing, it seems very likely that this problem will be overcome in the next few years, and self-driving cars will be able to react at least as well as human drivers.

The impact that driverless cars will have on society will be nothing less than transformative. The biggest revolutions will occur in safety and lifestyle.

In the United States, over 40,000 people are tragically killed each year in car accidents, 95% of which are due to human error. Driverless cars thus offer us the opportunity to save 38,000 lives every year. When the technology matures, the computerized systems in our cars will have reflexes thousands of times quicker than human drivers, and will be able to scan all around the car at all times to identify any potential dangers.

Driverless cars will also improve our lifestyle, by reducing commute times. Driverless cars will be able to identify any road delays via the internet, and plan an alternate route to avoid getting stuck in traffic. Furthermore, when driverless cars become ubiquitous, there will be no need for individuals to own cars. When cars can drive themselves, why would I spend thousands of dollars on a car that will sit unused in a garage or parking lot for most of the day? It would be much more efficient for cities to develop networks of public cars that could drive themselves to pick people up as needed. If I needed to go across town, I could use my phone to order the nearest car to pick me up. If I needed a car to pick me up at the same place and time every day (such as for my morning commute to work), I could schedule this as well. These networks of driverless cars could operate similar to taxi cabs, but much more efficiently, safely, and cheaply.

The biggest long-term obstacles to driverless cars are liability laws. While driverless cars could save up to 38,000 lives per year that would otherwise be lost due to human error, what happens if 1,000 lives are lost due to computer error? Under our present liability system, the auto manufacturers would lose their shirts. Unless these laws are changed, it will be extremely difficult from an economic standpoint for auto companies to roll out self-driving vehicles in the United States for commercial use.

I am optimistic that this problem can be overcome. As soon as the utility of driverless cars becomes clear (probably by 2015-2020), there will likely be a legislative push to limit the liability for auto manufacturers. When that happens, we will enter the era of automated transportation and the world will be forever changed.

By 2020 - Driverless cars are commercially-available and street-legal somewhere in the United States.
By 2027 - New driverless cars outnumber new cars requiring at least some human control, in the US market.
By 2035 - Driverless cars are widely perceived as safer than human drivers. Somewhere in the United States, it is illegal for humans to drive.

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