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AUTONOMOUS CARS: FROM SCI-FI MOVIES TO THE BACK ALLEY

posted on 12th December 2018
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Just over a decade ago, a driverless car in a sci-fi movie rescuing the hero was a thing of awe. Such days are well in the past. Some of them are already on our roads and very soon, you will find one parked in the alley or even in your own garage. Major players like Ford, Lexus, and Tesla are all set to unleash the wonder of autonomous cars on humanity very soon.

Autonomous cars are such a rage that everyone wants a piece of the pie. Suddenly, car manufacturers like GM Motors and Ford find technology giants like Apple and Google as their competitors. Lyft and Uber who stand to gain enormously from the technology are also part of the race, along with some well-known names in smart phone manufacturing like Samsung and Huawei. So, let us find out what drives the driverless cars and what makes it so irresistible.

IT ALL COMES DOWN TO AI AND SOME MORE

An autonomous car is one that can navigate to a given destination, effectively avoid obstacles, and effortlessly park itself without any human intervention. Yeah, it sounds amazing but how does it achieve this feat? With an AI core of course! The autonomous cars are, tested based on their ability to drive efficiently while avoiding all possible obstacles and based on their response to various road safety scenarios. The autonomous cars are a super mix of the latest technologies that includes:

·        Sensors and cameras

·        Machine Learning

·        Local Data Processors

·        Artificial Intelligence

·        High Performance GPS

·        Cloud based-data processing and management

·        Radar

·        LIDAR

·        Connectivity, and

·        Smart technologies

Driverless cars are so fascinating a technology, that many big and small players are involved in helping the realization of the dream. NVIDIA, at GTC Europe 2017 in Munich, Germany announced the Drive PX Pegasus which is the latest member of the Drive PX family of computing modules for self-driving cars. This new Pegasus system is as thin as a plate, the size of an I-pad, can do over 320 trillion operations per second and is a system that can support fully automated driving for driverless vehicles.

ON ROAD EXPERIENCES

Now we have the dream, the vision, and technology in place, but where are the driverless cars? The oblivious human should realize that driverless cars have been a part of our roads for the past decade. Here are some of the variants.

Apple’s Driverless Cars

As of May 2018, Apple has the second largest fleet with 55 autonomous cars. Recent reports have shown that Apple plans to install VR devices in its driverless cars to entertain passengers as they cruise to their destination. In addition, Apple also has a patent for a technology called “intent signals” so passengers can control the car at will.

Google’s Driverless Cars

Waymo, Google’s driverless car has been in existence since 2009 and a decade’s worth of research has made it the most reliable autonomous vehicle in existence owing to the six LIDAR sensors. Today, it has a fleet of 51 cars and plans to start its own taxi service in Phoenix.

Uber’s Driverless Cars

In September 2016, Uber surprised the cab riders of Pittsburgh with an option to catch a ride in a self-driven car. They had a fleet of 14 completely automated Ford Fusions cabs on the ready. It was an experiment to understand how passengers reacted to the experience. It paid off and was a huge success that within a few short weeks autonomous cars were picking people from the airport and northern suburbs of Pittsburgh. Uber later expanded to Arizona, but a high-profile fatal accident in March 2018 led the state governor to suspend these privileges indefinitely. Although, Uber’s autonomous vehicles are still at large in San Francisco, Toronto and Pittsburgh, the accident has put quite a damper on its progress.

Tesla’s Driverless Cars

In October 2016, Elon Musk claimed that all new Tesla’s were equipped with the hardware for autonomous operation and that only the software needs to be developed and included. Tesla’s autopilot cars have the ability to gathers data from errors occurred which helps to constantly improvise their system. However, owing to a series of accidents recent updates on the progress seems obscure. 

GM’s Driverless Cars

In December 2016, General Motors launched the self-driving Chevy Bolts on public roads in San Francisco and Scottsdale. Today, it is the largest fleet with 104 autonomous cars and considered the safest model after Waymo. 

Other than these five players Volkswagen, Ford, and Hyundai have also joined the fray along with many technology and smart phone manufacturers.  

THE HUMAN PREDICAMENT

The major fiascos around autonomous cars in the past have given the government and the people an air of uncertainty and suspicion. The chief question remains ‘how can a machine predict human behaviour?’ With all the mystery, surrounding the autonomous car queries on their economical, financial, environmental and safety impacts remain hypothetical.

Although, safety seems to be the primary concern, the one that equals it is hacking. With automated cars, being entirely computer driven it makes them more vulnerable to hackers. A latest study on the subject showed that the system can be easily confused which may pose a serious threat to cyber security.

Automated cars pose a grave threat to employment too. It has the ability to displace millions of people of their jobs, not only drivers and delivery agents; but also impact public transport.

With all the ease and convenience it may lead to more number of people using cars which may further impact the gas emission levels and increase road traffic. Above all, the government will need to have an entire new set of safety and environmental rules in place and think about more high-tech lanes for the use of automated cars.

REALITY CHECK

The manufacturers envision the automated cars to grace our roads in the next couple of years, but for a technology that is so popular it seriously lacks a plan B in case of any negative eventuality. This would mean a complete new set of traffic rules, new vehicle insurance policies, and new road infrastructures.

Autonomous cars, although enjoy the privilege of being one of the most heavily invested technology; continue to be in their testing phase, albeit advanced stages. The massive scale of these testing has so far only equipped then to handle highways. Until the day, the autonomous cars are fitted with a technology that can help them navigate through heavy traffic or a school crossing without endangering the pedestrian’s life, the government and the people will remain wary. Until then, even with all the money invested and all the promises made, autonomous cars will remain elusive. 

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