You’re probably familiar with the term self-driving car or autonomous vehicle and some of the benefits that this new technology promises. Getting from place to place without any human intervention with lowered rates of accident, congestion, and even environmental pollution. But before you chance taking a ride in one of these vehicles, you might be wondering how they actually work. In this article, we’ll talk through some of the reasons self-driving cars are so appealing and some of the underlying mechanics that make them work.
So, why autonomous cars? A recent study has shown that over 90 percent of road accidents are caused by human error. To err is human, but behind the wheel, mistakes are often catastrophic. Accidents have led to a massive number of unnecessary deaths—lives that could have otherwise been saved through safer driving. This is where self-driving cars come in. What do they have to offer?
The technological leaps and bounds we have made in recent years have finally culminated in making self-driving cars a reality. Self-driving cars are only possible today due to the existence of three technologies:
There are many types of sensors available today that make autonomous cars a reality. Sensors for blind-spot monitoring, forward collision warning, radar, camera, LIDAR, and ultrasonic all work together to make navigation of a self-driving car possible.
Self-driving cars use cloud computing to act upon traffic data, weather, maps, adjacent cars, and surface conditions among others. This helps them monitor their surroundings better and make informed decisions. Self-driving cars must be connected to the internet even if edge computing hardware can solve small computing tasks locally.
All the data the car collects needs to be analyzed to determine the best course of action. This is the main function of the control algorithms and software. This is the most complex part of the self-driving car since it has to make decisions flawlessly. A “flaw,” like in Uber’s self-driving accident, can be fatal.
The most famous self-driving cars in existence today are those made by Tesla and Google. Tesla cars work by analyzing their environments using a software system known as “Autopilot“. Autopilot uses high-tech cameras to view and collect data on the world, much like we use our eyes to do, using what’s called “computer vision” or sophisticated image recognition. It then interprets this information and makes the best decision based on it. As stated earlier, Tesla’s self-driving technology is already being sold today.
On the other hand, Google takes a very different approach to its cars. The self-driving cars Google makes use of LIDAR. Simply put, lidar is like radar, but with light instead of radio waves. This sensor technology makes Google’s cars bypass the need for steering wheels and pedals.
We began this article with the question, how do self-driving cars work? Let’s end it with another: what obstacles still stand in the way for self-driving cars?
The path towards self-driving cars, like all great breakthroughs, is littered with obstacles. Some of these hurdles are technological but many more are political and regulatory. Self-driving cars are illegal—often by default—in many US states. Another hurdle developers face is how to safely integrate the cars into a world of human-driven vehicles. Remember, it’s humans who make mistakes.
This technology could change all of our lives whether we own a self-driving car or not. Our society can definitely benefit from autonomous vehicles, in areas such as driving privileges for the old and the physically impaired. Soon, everyone will be able to own a self-driving car. We can hope that there’ll be fewer crazy drivers on our roads soon.
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