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robot car

A self-driving car. See self-driving car.



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 World's Fair in New York when the General Motors exhibit 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 that detected the painted lines in the road were performed in the U.S. and Europe, and in 2011, Nevada was the first state in the U.S. to legalize their use.

Why?
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 that may sit idle a lot of the time. Of course, fewer cars overall has other implications (see computer ethics).

Not Foolproof
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 on their daily commute 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, and bad ones can blow a tire or bend a rim.

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 many exceptions to routine driving.

Radar, LIDAR, Cameras and GPS
Self-driving cars use a combination of radar, lasers, cameras, digital maps and GPS to detect the lines in the road and every stationary and moving object in view. Today, self-driving cars such as Tesla's AutoPilot require that a human driver be ready to take control when the system cannot properly identify the environment. See radar, LIDAR and GPS.

DARPA Grand Challenges
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency jump-started the self-driving 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 if necessary, but drivers do not talk to passengers in order to give them the full driverless experience. Also in September 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, accident prevention systems in regular cars are becoming much more advanced as a result of all the research, and that has been a boon to road safety (see automotive safety systems). See self-driving rig, semiautonomous vehicle, e-highway and automotive systems.






The Driverless Audi
Cruise Automation started taking pre-orders in 2014 for its RP-1 kit for late model Audis. The rooftop sensor pod contains the cameras and radar for highway cruising. (Images courtesy of Cruise Automation Inc., www.getcruise.com)






Tesla Model S Autopilot - 2017
Tesla's Autopilot maps all vehicles in its view and keeps a steady pace on the road. The first driverless option in a production car, drivers must keep their hands on the wheel at least once every 30 seconds. Autopilot alerts the driver when cars are too close to the side, and it automatically changes lanes and parallel parks. See semiautonomous vehicle.






Auto-Propelled Wagon - 1478
Equally as revolutionary, Leonardo da Vinci attempted to create an auto-propelled vehicle with coiled springs, but he never made it work. This replica is in IBM's conference center in Palisades, New York.






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