A CDE Definition
Google's driverless car technology. See self-driving car.
A computer-controlled car that drives itself. Also called an "autonomous vehicle" and "driverless car," self-driving cars date back to the 1939 New York World's Fair when General Motors predicted the development of self-driving, radio-controlled electric cars. As TVs and modern appliances emerged in the U.S. in the 1950s, more images of self-driving cars debuted. In the 1980s, experiments detecting the painted lines in the road were performed in the U.S. and Europe, and in 2011, Nevada was the first state to legalize their use.
Some vehicles today feature partial self-driving capabilities such as Tesla's AutoPilot. They self-drive as long as the human driver is attentive (see image below).
Accident avoidance is the major incentive because the car can respond faster than a human. In addition, people can arrive more relaxed after a long trip. Vehicles can travel closer together on the road, and computers can operate them more economically than people. The ultimate manifestation is the reduction of vehicles. For example, self-driving taxis could replace a family's second car, or the main car could drive everyone to work and pick them up. Of course, fewer cars has other implications (see computer ethics).
If thousands of lives can be saved each year, self-driving cars will be a huge benefit. However, there are situations that are not so straightforward. For example, drivers in winter months in the northeastern U.S. know when steep hills are coming and may slow down considerably when temperatures fall below freezing. Also, after a hard winter, potholes become a hazard. Rain-filled craters on wet roads are virtually impossible to discern at night.
In addition, how will an automatic vehicle analyze hand signals from a policeman or road worker when an accident has occurred or when repairs are taking place? It will take time to iron out the exceptions.
DARPA Grand Challenges
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency jump-started the industry. In 2004, DARPA offered rewards for the winners of a 150-mile self-driving race in California's Mojave Desert. No vehicle completed the course, but 22 out of 23 finished the next race in 2005 with more curves and narrower roads. In 2007, six teams completed a 60-mile run through urban streets.
Google Self-Driving Car Project
Although most automobile companies are in some stage of R&D for self-driving cars, Google undertook its own project in 2009. Seven years later, Google spun off the technology into a new Alphabet division (see Waymo).
Taxi Trials Have Begun
In 2016, Uber and nuTonomy began self-driving taxi trials in Pittsburgh and Singapore respectively. Engineers are present in the vehicle to take over when necessary, but drivers do not talk to passengers in order to give them the full driverless experience. Also in 2016, California sanctioned the trials of completely self-driving cars (no steering wheel, brakes, etc.) in a Contra Costa County private business park. See Uber.
The Transition to Driverless Cars
Along with the huge technology challenge, state laws are being changed to allow them on the road. Whether self-driving cars become mainstream in a few years remains to be seen. However, predictions abound that 20% to 25% of all vehicles wordwide will be driverless by 2040. As that unfolds, the infrastructure is also expected to accommodate this change. For example, road signs, traffic lights and the very roads themselves are expected to be able to communicate with the vehicles.
In the meantime, as a result of all the research, accident prevention in regular cars is becoming much more advanced, which is a boon to road safety (see automotive safety systems). See self-driving rig, semiautonomous vehicle, e-highway and automotive systems.
The Self-Driving Add-On
Tesla Model S Autopilot - 2017
The Sensing Technologies
Self-Propelled, not Self Driving - 1478
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