Auto Pilot to the Rescue: An Era of Autonomous Cars

I always wondered what it would be like to drive by myself and; when I finally turned 18, I thought perhaps a chauffeur driven car was better in all the traffic. However, somewhere in the middle of this transition, I thought of a car that could drive by itself (because no one wants to sit in a car with a stinking chauffeur full of attitude!). Clearly this era has seen technological marvels, setting new milestones for development such as the driverless trains and the auto-pilot facility in airplanes, why not just extend it to more commercially viable vehicles?

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  • One thing that was quite clear to me was that we needed a machine to behave human-like, something that could not only see everything located near it but also far away. This made it clear that long range and short range sensors with high accuracy must be required so as to enable a similar vision-like approach for the machine to substitute for the human vision, while driving. Not as much as an ‘eye for an eye’ as it is a sensor for an eye!
  • It is miraculous to think about the working of the human brain, as not only does it remember the routes but also keeps in mind the surroundings, thereby leading to the hand eye coordination which shifts the gears in the car and makes it possible to slow down or speed up accordingly. This cleared up the picture furthermore; we would then require long range and short range sensors to work simultaneously with a GPS device and automatic transmission for an autonomous car to form high precision maps of its surroundings and possible routes for the car to take up and also alter the speed of the car in accordance with the traffic and surroundings-like that used in aerial imagery by ATLIS.To explore more about the feasibility of such a car, I started working my way through the internet and well, we know things just get serious when big names like Google, BMW and Volvo come into the picture.

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 TECHNOLOGY USED

The autonomous cars built so far used mainly the Velodyne LIDAR systems, to enhance the capabilities of the car. Velodyne LIDAR is based on the science that we studied back in high school – how cracks inside a mountain or buildings and monuments are detected; throwing in a beam of laser and the reflected light received by the equipment tells us how deep the crack is. In a similar manner Velodyne LIDAR placed on top of the autonomous car would allow the vehicle to generate a 3D map of the environment; but this is clearly not enough. The maps generated are thus combined with high definition inch-precision maps of the world and the maps generated by the GPS systems to enhance the capabilities of the autonomous car.

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BIG NAMES ON AUTO PILOT

  • Google’s autonomous car- a two-seat, all-electric prototype that dispenses with the traditional steering wheel and accelerator and brake pedals in favor of just a start and stop button; with a tagline Making it safer, easier and more enjoyable to get around”. The car’s front end includes foam and a soft windshield to dampen the blow of any potential collision with soft-bodied objects- no more worries for cyclists and pedestrians about losing their lives by getting hit by this car.
  • With NASA and NISSAN working together to compete with Volvo and Google in this area of research and development, just made it clear that autonomous cars are the future. Nissan used NASA’s research on neutral body posture in low-gravity conditions to develop more comfortable car seats. But hardware and software for self-driving cars could prove to be some of the most transformative technologies to reach mainstream acceptance in the coming years. Not only does NASA aim to make autonomous cars commercially available, by collaborating with NISSAN, but also develop this technology to help the mars mission rovers for other future space exploration.
  • BMW also competes with these with its “ The ultimate driving machine! “ ; the question that arises is,  IS IT(the autonomous car) ACTUALLY THE ULTIMATE MACHINE OR IS MAN MOVING TOWARDS IT’S OWN DESTRUCTION?

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LIMITATIONS/ IMPROVEMENTS REQUIRED

But, as they say, a machine is a machine and every machine has its own limitations.

  • A human will know which obstacle on the road would actually cause a hurdle and which won’t, for example, a brick lying on the road or a rock of a small size which wouldn’t possibly cause a hurdle and the car could go over it and continue on the same path would appear as a hurdle to an autonomous car and the car might change its lane; similarly while travelling at high speeds, if a car can’t change its lane and a dead animal (road kill) is lying on the lane a human might not change the lane taking the situation into account, but the autonomous car might just stop to wait to change the lane.
  • Also, humans take weather conditions into account and if it’s raining or snowing , etc. according to the change in the weather we change the speed of the car to make sure an accident doesn’t take place, but an autonomous car in bad weather might not take into account such precision and an accident might just take place; although the LIDAR systems take rain into account however there is always a high risk of wrong precision mapping which might take place due to some technical inconsistency during systems synchronisation with one another.

 

WAITING FOR THE FUTURE

With further technological advancements such limitations could be eliminated; coupled with similar technologically developed roadways using smart street lights and cars we could hope to achieve the dream of autonomous cars and much more civilized traffic. The cars would be able to communicate with each other making travelling less chaotic, and much more honest- coz then , well, no one will be able to bluff about being stuck in traffic as an excuse for arriving late at events or meetings!  With this technology- there will be lesser accidents due to drunk driving, fatigue and other various human tendencies due to which so many lives are lost every year; the roads would be far less congested and reduction of fuel consumption could take place.
All in all it’s a win-win situation and we might even see autonomous cars on the road before we can possibly see human clones.

-By Shreya Gupta

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