Driverless cars

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Driverless cars (also known as connected and autonomous vehicles, CAVs or AVs) seem to be on the way. What do we think about them? Are they a good thing?

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Researched by Stuart Speeden and Perry Walker. Written by Perry Walker.

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What they look like

This car is a LUTZ pod. It was developed by the Oxford Robotics Institute. It was successfully tested in the centre of Milton Keynes in 2016.

The different ways of describing these vehicles

There is no agreed phrase. You’ll see several different terms: driverless vehicles (or cars), self-driving cars, autonomous vehicles (AVs), robotic cars, automated vehicles, highly automated vehicles and connected vehicles.

A self-driving car is one that is capable of sensing its environment and navigating without human input.

A connected vehicle uses various communication technologies to communicate with the driver, other vehicles, roadside infrastructure, and the ‘cloud’. All autonomous vehicles are connected, but a connected vehicle may not be autonomous.

What the technology may consist of

  • Two cameras to scan for obstacles and detect changes in traffic lights
  • A radar sensor, which can detect objects and their speeds at long distancesand which, unlike cameras, can ‘see’ through fog, rain, dust, sand and blinding headlights.
  • A laser-radar (‘lidar’) which can see clearly in 3-D. Often on the roof, rotating to scan all directions
  • Sonars can see smaller objects in more detail than radar, but only close up, so are used for e.g. parking.
  • A GPS (global positioning system)
  • An on-board computer which synthesises the data.

The six levels of automation

0 - No Automation

1  —  Driver Assistance: for example, adaptive braking if a car gets too close to another.

2  —  Partial Automation: the system can control the speed and direction of the car, but the driver has to monitor the road at all times and be ready to take over.

3  —  Conditional Automation: the driver can leave functions like braking to the technology when conditions are safe.

4  —  High Automation: if conditions are safe, the car can do all the driving.

5  —  Complete Automation: the system can cope with all weather, traffic and lighting conditions. No need for pedals, brakes, or a steering wheel. (No-one has got this far.)

Each year, around the world, there are some 1.2 million road deaths. Murder, suicide and war together account for 1.6 million.

Driverless cars should be compared to how safely the average human drives. Of course, we want self-driving cars to be safer than when humans drive. But how much safer? We might want those that ferry children to be ten times as safe (i.e. they can drive ten times further without having an accident).

The biggest risks (and gains) are unpredictable

Technology has unintended consequences: downsides and upsides. The engineers who built the fledgling Arpanet in 1969, which evolved into the Internet, never dreamed that networking technology would so disrupt journalism, although it also created the ‘blogosphere’.

Nor did anyone guess that smartphones would make people ignore one another at the dinner table – although they also communicate avidly through social media. Henry Ford did not foresee the traffic jam.And so on.

How do we prepare for risks that we cannot foresee? How do we do so without losing the potential of the new?

An example of uncertainty

It is possible that we are passing a peak in car ownership. In cities especially it will no longer be necessary to own a car at all. All you will need to do is call for a car through a smart phone or telephone call and one will be there to pick you up in minutes. This will mean much greater flexibility for people and reduce all of the costs of car ownership.

On the other hand, we might own a self-driving car because it can become a self-reproducing consumer in its own right, earning enough as a taxi to collect and pay for its own fuel, taxes and repairs, and then to pay for its replacement.