Driving Towards the Future

Last year I did a three part feature on the future of driving, and how the emergence of autonomous navigation systems could change society. Computer science researchers have always demonstrated prototypes of cars that can drive without human intervention, including following traffic laws and interacting correctly with other drivers. However, these systems still need work to make sure they can handle tricky situations like pedestrians and inclement weather.

One of the big questions is how the first self-driving cars will be introduced on the road. Obviously, a car company that releases such a product before it’s fully ready would be in a world of hurt. And there’s a serious risk that a premature release will lead to ill-considered regulations that prevent the emergence of self-driving technologies that would save lives in the long run.

Brad Templeton has argued that self-driving vehicles will probably sneak up on us gradually, as car manufacturers gradually add new sensors and intelligent navigation features to their vehicles. The first such technologies—cruise control and antilock braking—have been with us for a couple of decades. Now we’re starting to see more ambitious navigational features. For example, I happened to see an ad for the latest Mercedes vehicles. Their features include:

  • “Blind spot assist” which has sensors to monitor the car’s blind spot and alert the driver when a car is in the way.
  • Adaptive cruise control, which monitors the distance to the next car and automatically adjusts speed to match.
  • Night vision, which uses an infrared camera to give the driver an enhanced view of the road ahead.
  • Attention assist, which triggers alarms if it detects that the passenger is falling asleep.

    Now, obviously these don’t add up to a self-driving car. But you can easily see where this is going. Combine the adaptive cruise control and the blind-spot detection, and it’s not too hard to imagine a comprehensive crash-avoidance system, which detects imminent accident conditions and takes control (slamming on the brakes, swerving, etc) in time to prevent disaster. Indeed, we may reach the point where the safest thing to do in the face of an impending accident is to let go of the wheel and let the car drive itself to safety.

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    2 Responses to Driving Towards the Future

    1. Rhayader says:

      This stuff is really cool. Not only are human drivers safety risks, but we also dramatically reduce traffic efficiency. Anybody who’s ever watched a long line of cars start moving when the light turns green should realize we’re terrible at maintaining efficient traffic patterns.

      I welcome our robot overlords.

    2. Eitan says:

      I’ve been looking forward to self-driving cars since I was little. One problem is that people’s prejudices preclude the idea that it could be safer. I once had a debate with my friend and he hated the idea of a self-driving car, but then he’s a car guy. To me a car a means to get me where I’m going and the less I have to do the better. For him, he wants to control as much as possible and he doesn’t trust a computer to drive. Hopefully, our future has room for both kinds of cars. The more options the better in a free society. By the way, you missed the coolest new computerized driving feature: automatic parallel parking!

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