How Autonomous Cars will Change the Rules of the Road

13 Jan


While most of the world is wondering what kind of fuel will be powering the cars of the future, some more high-minded individuals are asking another question: what kind of software will be driving the cars of the future?


The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers already predicts that over three quarters of cars on the road by 2040 will drive themselves. Automobile manufacturers are well under way with fully-functioned prototypes, including such well-respected brands as Audi, BMW, and Cadillac. Some minor implementations of autonomous technologies are already on the road today.


Safer than Safe


While a car that drives itself has a number of quality-of-life improvements – can you imagine how much less stressful your morning commute would be? The biggest challenge however, is safety. As autonomous cars start to hit the road, there will be four rough stages of their development, likely spread over several years as the technology improves. The four stages are: Collision warning systems; scenario-specific collision avoidance systems (CAS); incremental CAS’s; and comprehensive CAS’s.


The most rudimentary version of the system never actually takes control away from the driver. Collision warning systems can already be seen on today’s car models. For example, Volvo’s lane departure warnings will alert the driver if he or she drifts out of his current lane. These systems will not avert an accident on their own, but can certainly make the driver aware.


Collision avoidance systems are what most people consider “autonomous,” in that they actually take some amount of control from the driver to avoid the accident, and some scenario-specific CAS are, again, already visible in some models on the road today.


Several new cars have the ability to maintain a certain distance from the car in front of you while on cruise control, regardless of the actual speed. Volvo goes an extra step, with cars that will actually stop themselves if the driver does not heed an obstruction warning. These systems are only built for one specific scenario, and will usually only operate if the system is absolutely certain they are correct, in an effort to avoid false positives.

Incremental CAS’s are a natural progression of these early systems. As the reliability of these systems increase, the parameters for their activation will likely loosen: a system that used to only brake if it knew you would hit a car might begin recognizing and braking for other barriers.


More systems for various scenarios will be included in the software package. Eventually, the total sum of these overlapping collision avoidance systems becomes better at avoiding accidents than humans. At that point, the vehicles can be said to have a comprehensive avoidance system.


Getting Ready


Governments have not been blind to the progression of autonomous vehicles. Google has already been seriously testing its own cars on American roads, driving over 300,000 miles in total. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is currently looking into these robot cars to establish national guidelines.


California was the third state in the US to establish safety and performance standards specifically for autonomous cars in September 2012, with Nevada and Florida following suit. California hopes to position its state at the forefront of this exciting new frontier of vehicle development. That frontier may be approaching faster than you think.…


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