The age of the self-driving car is almost here, with companies such as Tesla, General Motors, Uber and Google’s Waymo racing to get the first fully functioning Level 5 autonomous vehicle on the road.
Move over humans, you’re about to get booted from behind that wheel. Self-driving cars are coming whether we’re ready for them or not – and they’re rewriting the rules of road travel.
While the recent tragedy in Arizona definitely has us questioning their current capabilities, we need to bear in mind the technology is still in its developmental stages. Plus we should also consider the high number of fatalities caused by human drivers every year.
The reality is – when we do finally develop the technology – predictable, intelligent machines will be better and safer drivers than us hands down. Here’s why.
They’ll have superior vision
Scenario: You’re in the city after dark, the roads are busy and pedestrians are everywhere. As you’re about to take a left turn, a motorcyclist sneaks up on the inside. Do you see them?
Self-driving technology: Self-driving cars use cameras, sensors and Lidar to ‘see’ the world around them. Tesla prefers the former, while companies such as Google’s Waymo and Uber are investing in the latter. Lidar works by firing out millions of beams of light per second, measuring bounce-back to create accurate 3D maps. Using the data collected, the car’s smart computer system is able to identify objects, predict behaviour and react.
Why it will be better: While humans are pretty good at seeing and processing what’s around them when driving, their line of sight is still limited. As well as 360-degree vision, self-driving cars can see up to 250 metres at night – compared with 45 metres for humans – have distance awareness to +-2cm and will even be able to see around corners using advanced lasers.
They’ll stop in time
Scenario: You’re driving along a motorway when suddenly, and without warning, a car stops in front of you. Will you be able to hit the brake fast enough to avoid a hit?
Self-driving technology: Without a human behind the wheel, self-driving cars will use Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) – a feature already in cars today. Essentially, the car’s cameras and laser sensors feed into a digitally controlled braking system. If obstacles or vehicles are detected and collision potential identified, the system processes the information, alongside other factors such as road conditions, and reacts.
Why it will be better: Humans can certainly slam on those brakes when they have to – we’ve all had those adrenaline-pumping near-misses. However, even those of us with superfast reflexes can’t quite match the might of the machine. In fact, according to Wired, it takes us mortals 1.6 seconds to halt a car on a dry road while a self-driving car can do it in a mere 0.5 seconds.
They’ll always obey the rules
Scenario: You’re tired after a long day at work, you’ve had an argument with your boss and you’ve got a 50-minute journey ahead of you. Are you driving as well as you should be?
Self-driving technology: The rules of the road are programmed into an automated car’s central computer. This includes speed limits, the exact distance they must stay away from the back of the vehicle in front, and etiquette for roundabouts. In addition, image sensors and AI-assisted computer systems enable them to interpret traffic signs, traffic lights and lane markings and then act accordingly.
Why it will be better: As good as we like to think we are at driving, the reality is we humans struggle to be consistent when it comes to following the rules. We get tired and veer across lanes. We get angry and drive too fast. We get distracted and fail to stop at pedestrian crossings. Robots don’t. They maintain the speed limit, accurately follow the curve of the road and never run a red.
They’ll know what’s ahead
Scenario: There’s been a major accident ahead. It’s blocking lanes, and traffic is starting to build up behind it. Are you aware of it and do you have time to change route?
Self-driving technology: Enabled by lightning-fast 5G, cameras, AI and 3D HD mapping, Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) communication gives self-driving cars the ability to know what’s ahead at all times. Using chip technology, self-driving cars will receive data from each other (V2V) as well as infrastructure (V2I) such as traffic lights, road signs and pedestrian devices to stay one step ahead.
Why it will be better: Other than checking the local travel news, humans are generally blind to what’s happening on the road ahead. They can’t typically see accidents, roadworks or icy patches on the road until it’s too late. By comparison, automated vehicles will be aware of all these things in real time and will be able to divert their course to avoid problems or delays.
They’ll make the right choice
Scenario: You’re driving along a busy two-way road when a child suddenly runs out in front of you. Do you swerve to miss them even though you may hit other cars or people?
Self-driving technology: With human-like moral decision-making algorithms programmed into their intelligent computer systems, automated cars will be able to make ethical decisions in a life or death situation. To make them, they’ll use their cameras and other sensors plus machine learning to interpret what they see and assess the situation for the best outcome.
Why it will be better: Humans often have to make split-second moral choices on the road, which may lead to them acting erratically, saving themselves over others, or injuring more people. Self-driving cars, on the other hand, will behave consistently based on the set of principles a society agrees on, whether that means always making the utilitarian choice or prioritising eco-efficiency over performance.
With their super-human vision, sharp reactions, unwavering rule adherence and ability to know what’s ahead and to consider ethics, robots will not only be better drivers – they’ll also make the roads a safer, fairer place.