How do they work?
Self-driving cars are bristling with sensors that detect and map out the surrounding environment. They ‘see’ using video cameras, radar and LIDAR (light detection and ranging), and they navigate using GPS. But the tricky part is deciding when it’s safe to go, stop and steer - and that’s the job of the artificial intelligence system (AI). AI has to instantly process and ‘understand’ all the data it receives from sensory and navigation systems. And to make safe decisions, it must be able to distinguish between a newspaper blowing into the street and a small child riding a bicycle. So driverless AI systems are exposed to endless miles of test driving and countless hours of ‘learning’ – collecting data and creating decision-making algorithms that mimic human responses.
The companies involved in developing autonomous vehicles have a clear vision of the future – one where our choked up cities and highways flow freely 24/7, where travel-time becomes more productive, and where people and places are better connected. Yet perhaps the greatest potential benefit of driverless cars is improved road safety. According to The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, 95% of road accidents involve an element of human error. And with approximately 1.2 million accident fatalities around the world every year, eliminating those errors would equate to more than 1 million lives saved.
In case you didn’t know, autonomous vehicles have already arrived in the UK. In April this year, a leading AI firm sent a fleet of driverless cars out onto the streets of Bromley and Croydon in a data gathering exercise designed to give the cars’ AI systems experience of operating in urban environments. The trials conform to strict safety standards, and each of the cars has a trained driver on board, ready to take over at any time. If development goes well, the firm plans to expand trials and launch live passenger testing in 2020.
With testing underway in the UK, and tech firms advancing their AI capabilities by the day, it might seem that we’re on the verge of a new age of automated transport. But high-profile accidents involving driverless cars in the US have put the brakes on the progress of some companies. According to experts, the first phase of ‘live’ roll out in the UK is likely to be on motorways – from a fixed start point to a fixed end point, perhaps in a dedicated self-driving lane. Yet a genuinely self-driving vehicle that can successfully navigate its way anywhere in the UK in general traffic and in any kind of weather – well, that could be a while off yet.