InTrans / Apr 25, 2016

The new dawn of self-driving cars

Go! Magazine

Artwork of couples driving different colored cars.

Do you remember the last sci-fi movie you saw? Were the characters in the story assisted by robots or did their cars drive themselves? Before you know it, that movie won’t seem all too futuristic.

In 2016, we seem to find ourselves waking up to the dawn of a technical revolution for vehicles. They’re becoming more reliant on non-gasoline energies. Many car companies have at least one gasoline/electric “hybrid” model.

Depending on where you are, these type of vehicles may have become a common sight. For example, the new Chevrolet Volt is the electric car with a backup plan. It runs on an electric charge and generates additional energy through a gas-powered generator when the battery runs out.

Even those cars that still run solely on gasoline have also become more self-aware, with proximity detectors and autonomous parallel parking.

But now, that’s the past. What about the future? Leading one of the major efforts in fully-autonomous driving is Tesla Motors, which plans on giving the fully-autonomous driving experience to the masses by 2018. The best part? No car crashes have been recorded involving a self-driving car—at least test-drive-wise.

Looking at automation, there are four levels currently out there: function-specific, combined-function, limited self-driving, and full self-driving. Because full self-driving cars sit at the peak of this list, your chances of meeting one on the road are yet to be favorable. However, your chances of meeting cars that sit on the other three levels are much higher. These levels all include cars with adaptive cruise control (ACC), which controls the vehicle’s speed autonomously based on proximity with other vehicles.

Cars with ACC relieve the driver of the need to continually adjust cruise control speed simply because there’s a driver slowing down ahead of them. Although providing convenience, ACC systems have not shown any significant positive or negative effects on traffic flow.

Technologies such as ACC currently serve as an intermediary between today’s completely manual vehicles and the fully-automated vehicles of the future. Since many vehicles on the roadways still are not equipped with ACC, though, it has proven difficult to conduct effective research on them.

As one could expect, this presents difficulties in mass producing and introducing autonomous vehicles. Without an exceptional amount of research with positive results, especially in safety, investments in this technology are unlikely to be made.

One strategy researchers want to use is the automated highway system (AHS), which, if ever created, would act similarly to a high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane. Except in this case, instead of cars carrying multiple passengers, the lane would be suited only for autonomous vehicles.

The idea for the AHS is not a new one. But to many, the idea of letting a car drive itself is still too scary. Without overwhelming research positivizing autonomous driving, and with the negativity of many skeptics, it could be a long time before we begin seeing more self-driving cars on the roadways.

Until then, we’ll have to continue putting up with the slower drivers in front of us and the speeders tailgating behind. We’ll have to watch out for the lane-changers, the red-light runners, and the blind spots.

One day though, you may be reading this on your computer as you safety drive down the freeway, hands and eyes free.

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By Alex Larson, Go! Intern

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