On May 2012, the Google driverless car became the first licensed autonomous car. Three years since they began research, Google’s investment in this project has proven fruitful as this technology has become possible. This advancement shows great development and progress to General Motors’ Futurama exhibit from the 1939 World’s Fair. Designed by Norman Bel Geddes, it depicted electric cars powered by circuits embedded in the roadway and controlled by radio [ (O’Toole, Dude, Where’s My Driverless Car? , 2009) ].
A large portion of the recent progress in autonomous vehicle technology can be attributed to competitions held by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In one of these contests, the 2005 DARPA Challenge, competitors were tasked with building a driverless vehicle that could traverse through an unpaved desert terrain in which a group from Stanford won. In another contest, the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge, teams were faced with a mock-up of an urban environment. A team from Carnegie Mellon University took home the grand prize.
These competitions demonstrate that the research done over the past decades indicate that autonomous vehicles are a doable technology. In fact, specific problems solved in the research and engineering for the DARPA challenges have turned into “driver assistance” technologies seen in cars today. These technologies include automatic parallel parking, blind-spot vehicle detection, adaptive cruise control, and emergency braking. Despite no apparent hurdles in implementing this kind of technology on cars today, there are still major problems with autonomous vehicle technology.
According to most experts, the biggest problems in the driverless car technology lie in sensor perception and decision-making under uncertain conditions. A fully functional autonomous car is essentially a robot whose radar detects objects at long range. Then, laser range finders, or lidar, filter the objects as they get closer. Afterwards, vision cameras look for specific types of objects and finally, a group of computers gathers all of these data and tells the fully-electronic car which path to take.
Because of the highly controlled and fixed experiments held using this technology, many experts are worried that minor changes in the vehicle’s environment can throw off its entire perceptive system [ (Markoff, 2010) ]. How would a robot respond to the hazardous conditions during a blizzard or something as diminutive as debris on the road? The other big issue with autonomous cars has to do with its legality. Out of the 50 states, only Nevada allows the operation of driverless cars through the passage of a law on June 2011.
Allowing the development of driverless cars would cause a variety of changes in state, local, and federal laws because of the presumption that every vehicle has a licensed operator [ (Cowen, 2011) ]. In addition, in a case where the car malfunctions and results in the deaths of people, the question of legal liability arises. Since no one was technically driving the vehicle, who is at fault? The owners of the vehicle will most likely point the manufacturer of the car as the one liable. Companies will then become reluctant to produce and invest heavily in the production of driverless cars.
In fact, during the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge, stunt drivers were hired to share the testing grounds with driverless vehicles, a precaution that DARPA officials decided to take. Also, whenever Google’s driverless car operated on public roads, there are two well-trained operators in the car, illustrating that companies do not want to take chances [ (Markoff, 2010) ]. Despite these roadblocks, many are thrilled with this beneficial innovation. The obvious benefit would be the relief from driving. Forty minutes of driving becomes forty minutes of “do something else while your car drives you where you need to go” time.
Also, it lessens the constraints on occupants’ age, disability, current state of mind, etc. Before, some people were restricted from driving due to some condition, but with the help of a driverless car, they have the ability to go anywhere. Autonomous cars also reduce the number of automobile crashes as driver error, intoxication, and other human factors are eliminated. Another benefit is reducing parking costs. Driverless cars can drop people off, head home, and then return to pick the owner up, which ultimately results to never paying for parking ever again.
Research is still ongoing with this technology; however, one thing is certain: a system of driverless vehicles will change the global car culture. Maybe in 50 or so years, people would begin to wonder why humans even bothered to drive cars.
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