Friday, December 13, 2013

Friday Feature: Driverless Cars - In Machines We Trust?

Driverless cars, known as autonomous vehicles or AVs, seem like a far-off possibility, but there are more signs these vehicles of the future could become a reality in the years to come. The latest indication comes from Volvo, which announced it, along with the Swedish government, will put 100 self-driving Volvos on the road in and around the Swedish city of Gothenburg by 2017 in what’s been dubbed the “Drive Me” project. Volvo says the 2014 XC90 will have a new autonomous design to be able to handle all possible traffic scenarios, including fully automated parking with no driver in sight. Volvo says the goal of this project is to highlight the “societal and economic benefits” of autonomous vehicles, in addition to focusing on road safety and traffic improvement.
From Google

Safe driving and less congestion are two of the main reasons autonomous vehicles are getting a lot of attention right now. A report out this fall by the Eno Center for Transportation found autonomous vehicles can potentially have a dramatic effect on reducing crashes. The report said, “over 40 percent of these fatal crashes involve alcohol, distraction, drug involvement and/or fatigue. Self-driven vehicles would not fall prey to human failings, suggesting the potential for at least a 40 percent fatal crash-rate reduction, assuming automated malfunctions are minimal and everything else remains constant...Driver error is believed to be the main reason behind over 90 percent of all crashes.”
From Volvo
An episode of the Freakonomics Radio show looked at the potential of AVs and found that while the possible safety benefits are clear, the improvement in traffic congestion could be even greater. Indeed, the Eno report found that in addition to sensing vehicles braking and accelerating, AVs are also “expected to use existing lanes and intersections more efficiently through shorter headways, coordinated platoons, and more efficient route choices.”

The study notes that the benefits may not exist until there are a high number of AVs, in addition to technology to allow vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. But the estimated economic benefits of driverless cars are staggering. At just 10 percent market-penetration, AVs could save 1,100 lives a year, prevent 211,000 crashes and save $5.5 billion in crash costs. That’s not to mention the 756 hours in travel time saved and the $16.8 billion in congestion savings. When you look at those same numbers at a 50 percent market-penetration, it’s predicted AVs would prevent 9,600 deaths a year and 1.88 million crashes, saving $48.8 billion. The projected traffic savings would be 1,680 hours in travel time saved and $37.4 billion. At a 90 percent market saturation level, nearly a half trillion dollars would be saved in crash costs, traffic congestion, and parking.

You’ve probably already heard about Google testing its driverless cars, which have driven more than 435,000 miles on California public roads. And Nissan has announced its intention to have viable AVs by 2020. The Eno report predicts AVs may be available to the mass market by 2022 or 2025, but prices will have to drop to allow AVs to reach consumers at a broad level. Then of course, there are the licensing and legal concerns that come along with new technology.
From Google

Even with those potential barriers to the fully autonomous vehicle in the horizon, autonomous features are already creeping into mainstream manufacturing. In the August 2013 of Car and Driver magazine, a report asked the question, ‘how much are we really driving anymore?’ It pointed out that, “In most new vehicles, the driver is just a biological cog in a matrix of computerized control that reads and filters human input and then interprets it into vehicular action. Stability control, drive-by-wire throttle, and—on some hot cars—launch control are already common computer functions, like electronically controlled automatic transmissions and anti-lock brakes.” The article mentions Mercedes-Benz, which has already added steering assist to the new S-class, which keeps the car centered in its lane. And Ford is working on its version of a traffic-jam assist, which would take over a vehicle’s speed if traffic conditions change. And remember Volvo's recent viral video showing action star Jean-Claude Van Damme doing an epic split between two FM trucks? The stunt was performed to promote Volvo's dynamic steering, which uses a motor to "create highly precise steering."

So, while the road to the driverless car is roughly mapped out, the Freakonomics report brings up another possible speed bump - how to experience the thrill of driving in a driverless world? Driver error and all, people love to drive fast and flashy cars. It is part of the reason there has been so much controversy surrounding the tragic death of Fast and Furious star Paul Walker. It's not clear what caused the crash in the Porsche Carrera GT, but there is already lots of speculation over the safety of the vehicle, which was created for car enthusiasts and has no stability control. But that is the appeal of a supercar, and why it's advised that the driver of those types of cars be skilled and quite confident in their driving abilities.

For the majority of people just trying to achieve a safe commute every day, autonomous vehicles appear to be the wave of the future. Perhaps some day, driving might only happen at fancy car country clubs. If that happens, joyride could take on a whole new meaning.

Want to see more about driverless cars? Watch a recent CBS report about how race drivers are helping to inform the technology in autonomous vehicles.

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