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Autonomous Autos Head for the Highways

December 6th, 2015
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Will Your Car Be Smarter Than You?

Several major car manufacturers have developed self-driving autos and have announced their plans to develop cars that would enable drivers to truly multi-task while they drive. Current projections suggest it will be feasible for cars to autonomously drive on highways or to park themselves safely. BMW, Volvo, Audi, Ford, GM, Toyota and Nissan have all developed smart car prototypes and hope within the next ten years to bring their own models to market with advanced automation that would allow drivers to work or play while they drive.

A Look at BMW’s Smart Car

For example, BMW is developing a 5 Series prototype that can accomplish fairly complicated highway maneuvers autonomously, and it does this by virtue of a cadre of light and compact computers, cameras, scanners and sensors. The car monitors the road ahead and behind for a distance of about 200 meters using laser scanners and radar sensors planted inside the front and rear bumpers. Cameras read road signs and road markings from the windshield and rear window, and each wheel harbors an ultrasonic sensor that watches for objects within close proximity. The car also contains its own GPS receiver which tracks the car’s position on the road.

Computers concealed in the trunk of the car enable the precise measurements, calculations and processing of data provided by the sensors. Each lane of the road has a value calculated by the car’s mph and how other vehicles on the road are being driven. Software using probability algorithms helps the car decide whether to pass, switch lanes or slow down for an approaching vehicle attempting to pass. Once the calculation is made, the command is carried to another computer that controls the car’s steering, braking and speed.

Future Caution Lights

However, despite the fact that we have several hands on prototypes, the road to tomorrow may not be an entirely smooth one. There are certain glitches that need to ironed out in the technology and in the human/technology interface. One very obvious hurtle is the cost of technology. Laser sensors and infrared cameras are expensive and currently eclipse the market cost of a single luxury model.

The other factor lies in the grey area between driver attention and automated driving. Safety issues arise because too great a dependency on the automation may cause drivers to miss signals for times when driver attention needs to be engaged to avoid an accident. The autonomous driving is not flawless, and the new systems are designed to alert the driver when trouble is near, but if the driver has been too diverted from driving to engage fully in the moment, the accident may not be avoided.

This could easily happen if a driver is reading a work document while engaged in autonomous driving, for instance. He or she may not be able to return quickly to the driving with a clear and focused mind. The solution is to use alert mechanisms to remind drivers to remain peripherally alert at all times when they are not involved in driving. Sounds a bit annoying, doesn’t it.

While the car of the future may not enable us to scratch out a memo while it drives us to work, it probably could prevent a fender bender in stop and go traffic because we actually were trying to scratch out a memo on the way to work.

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