Heralded as the “mobility gold rush”, driverless cars (also known as autonomous vehicles or AVs) are no longer a thing of the future.
Major car manufacturers, including Mercedes Benz and BMW, and tech goliaths Apple and Google are racing to be at the forefront.
While they seem impossibly futuristic, autonomous vehicles employ many familiar technologies. And as the research and development continue at speed, we look at how these technologies will translate into the transport of the future.
What drives the self-driving car?
At this stage in development, autonomous is a bit of a misdemeanour – the first roll out of vehicles will be assisted rather than entirely self-driving.
As current legislation demands self-driving cars have a manual override button, the specially built vehicles in development still look like a regular car, with a conventional wheel, gearbox and pedals. The difference is they are filled will computers and software that process the information they receive from numerous sensors on front, roof-top and rear-mounted cameras.
These sensors identify any potential hazards, keeping cars at safe speeds and reasonable distances from other vehicles. An Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) system will apply the brakes if a problem is detected.
Some of these technologies are similar to those in modern cars. The driverless BMW 5-Series, for example, comes with a radar sensor in the front bumper which is the same one that currently enables active cruise control. The car’s camera system is also similar to the lane departure cameras already in use (though the software allows it to recognise speed limit signs as well as lanes).
A signal on the back of the car also reads the precise geo-location of the car with GPS signals, which continuously updates the vehicle’s internal map. The software has also been programmed to interpret common road behaviour and signs. Predetermined shape and motion descriptors help the car make intelligent decisions.
AVs will also feature lidar (light detection and ranging). This involves using pulses of laser light flashed from a rotating mirror on the car roof to scan the surroundings for potential obstacles. Unlike video cameras, it cannot be dazzled by bright light or blinded by darkness, and is far more accurate than radar at measuring distance and speed of objects. It can also provide an image in three dimensions.
Are AVs road ready?
The UK is one of the top five countries leading the way in autonomous car development. At the moment, driverless car testing is concentrated in small urban areas and city centres.
In June 2015, Shell was involved in the first UK trial of an autonomous delivery vehicle where self-driving CargoPods made around 100 Ocado shopping deliveries to houses in the Royal Borough of Greenwich. Driverless pod vehicles at London Heathrow’s Terminal 5 have been in use since 2011.
The UK government has committed more than £109 million towards autonomous driving projects – saying it wants Britain to “lead the way in developing” the technology.
Driven, a consortium of British companies, has unveiled a plan to test driverless cars on UK roads and motorways in 2019. They also set out plans to try out a fleet of autonomous vehicles between London and Oxford.
Experts suggest we will see cars that will be able to drive themselves on our roads in around a decade. This will include driving on motorways and in city environments that feature traffic lights, junctions and roundabouts. Cars will be connected wirelessly to each other and communicate with the road infrastructure, although it’s likely the steering wheel will remain.
In the even more distance future, autonomous vehicles may not look like what we know as cars and we’ll able set our destination and sit back.
But while the road to an autonomous future is underway, there are still challenges and hurdles to be overcome – from the infrastructure to insurance concerns.
The hurdles facing AV cars
AV costs and regulations still need to be finalised. One sticking point is insurance. In February 2017, the UK government drew up the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill that made insurers primarily responsible for paying out damages for autonomous cars involved in accidents. But there’s a lot of new ground to cover as the bill also seeks to provide exclusions to insurers’ liability such as when vehicle software updates haven’t been properly executed by the owner.
Furthermore, although AVs do mimic some real life driver behaviour, there is a fear of over-trusting in prototypes before they’re ready.
But, while truly autonomous future is a still a way off, it’s worth putting AVs on your radar – they’ll be here sooner than you think.