A car needs three components in order to drive itself: GPS, a CAN bus, and a sensor system. Most cars these days already come with GPS, which lets them determine the best way to get from Point A to Point B. Similarly, cars have had crude versions of a CAN (Controller Area Network) bus for decades, which lets the devices within a car communicate with each other without a computer. In an automated car, the CAN bus will enable communication between the GPS and the car’s sensors to tell the car where to go and what the road conditions are like.
The sensor system is the newest addition necessary to the driverless car. It will include lasers, cameras and radar. Cameras, of course, will let the car see its surroundings and thereby detect things like a tree or other hazard across the road. Radar will let the car “see” in the dark, and bad weather as well as keep an eye on your “blind spot”. The lasers constantly scan the surrounding area and give the car an omnidirectional, 3D view of the world. And not only will these systems point out these obstacles, they will be able to accurately identify them as well.
During an interview with Forbes, the CEO of Ford, Mark Fields, said that driverless cars would be on the road within the next five years. Google has been working on them for years, and started testing on public roads this summer. Audi has also been working on driverless cars and expects to start selling them in 2017. Nissan, Tesla, Jaguar and Land-Rover all expect to start marketing driverless cars within the decade.
Driverless cars’ capabilities mean that they will be part of the “Internet of Things” . According to many futurists, basically anything with an On/Off switch will all be connected to the Internet, and therefore these devices will also be connected to each other. Such devices include or will include smartphones, headphones, wearable gadgets, coffeemakers, lamps and cars.
Connecting everything in this fashion could have its benefits. For example – picture this – somebody is on their way to work for a meeting. The car has already mapped out the best route to get there, but traffic is heavy anyway. The car then sends a text to the office informing people there of the problem. Similarly, the Internet of Things could mean that your alarm clock not only wakes you up, it also tells the coffeemaker to start brewing your cuppa. It could also means that your autonomous car can alert your smarthome when you arrive so it will switch off the security system to let you in. An autonomous car might also be able to communicate with “smart” parking lots and learn which ones have parking spaces available, which means no more endless cruising around looking for a parking space.
In the European Union, all new cars will come with an eCall-equipped chip by 2018. The chip will automatically call the nearest emergency center for help if the car is in an accident, similar to OnStar, and just further extending the Internet of Things to include thousands of more devices. But of course these are valuable devices with the potential to save lives since the call would go out even if the person in the car was unconscious or otherwise incapacitated.
James Hines, the research director at Gartner, expects one in five cars to have some sort of connection to the Internet by 2020. Starting with the connections between cars and cellphones, soon cars will be able to communicate with each other and other devices.
While many people are excited about driverless cars, others find the idea worrisome at best. Safety is a main concern for many. Driverless cars will basically be computers on wheels – and everybody has experienced problems with a computer at one point or another. A computer that goes down when you’re at home is annoying; a computer that goes down while it’s driving your car could get someone killed. The makers of driverless cars will probably have to develop and add systems to ensure the car’s computer doesn’t malfunction and prevent hacking. There will probably need to be warning signals indicating something like a failing hard drive just as there are warning signals indicating engine trouble.
Driverless cars offer endless possibilities. They offer mobility to many people who currently can’t drive conventional cars such as many seniors or those with disabilities. They could also offer lots of entertainment options. Since the car is doing the driving, the people inside no longer have to watch the road – but can watch a movie, read or play video games instead. Someone driving from Bangor, Maine to Key West will be able to take a nap on the way. Once it’s no longer illegal to do so, people will be able to call or text in their car as well.
In short, whatever a person can do on their computer they will soon be able to do in their driverless car. Automated cars are worth watching. Everybody who drives, not just car enthusiasts, should keep an eye on this new development.