Monday, July 9, 2012

The future of the self-driving car ain't what it used to be

Some people think self-driving cars are cool, others think they're very cool, and still others can barely contain themselves. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from an article I stumbled on a few days ago:

    "Some day in the future when you drive onto a superhighway, you’ll reach over to your dashboard and push the button marked “Electronic Drive.” Selecting your lane, you’ll settle back to enjoy the ride as your car adjusts itself to the prescribed speed. You may prefer to read or carry on a conversation with your passengers—or even to catch up on your office work. It makes no difference for the next several hundred miles as far as the driving is concerned."

Bring it on, I say. Especially since the technical challenges are far from insurmountable, or so the author claims. I quote again from the same article, which reviewed a study of driver assistance systems conducted on a public highway in Nebraska:

    The demonstration made two major points. First: the various elements of the system can be used immediately in conjunction with roadside and intersection lights to increase driving safety under present conditions... Second: the system as a whole can be developed without major technical complications into a fully automatic highway traffic control system. [emphasis mine]

Told you: This will be easy!

But here's the thing. This article dates from 1958, when it was published in a journal called Electronic Age. Here's a facsimile of the article's opening page, courtesy of the folks at the Modern Mechanix blog:

As you can see, the caption writer is even more optimistic, claiming that "electronic highways" (and, by extension, electronic drive) will eliminate accidents and make driving "foolproof".

Well, if the self-driving car is so easy, why haven't we seen it yet?

The short answer: we have. But it's a work in progress.

Giving up control
It all started 80 years ago, when GM introduced the first automatic transmissions. For the first time, the car started to make some driving decisions — namely, when to shift gears — on behalf of the driver.

Fast-forward to the early 1970s, when the first computerized anti-lock brakes came off the assembly line. These, too, do some "thinking" on behalf of the driver. When you slam your foot on the brake pedal of a car with anti-lock brakes, you're not really in control. You're just asking the braking system to make a series of decisions for you.

Fast-forward again to 2003, when Toyota introduced automatic parallel parking. With this technology, the car becomes even more autonomous, to the point of steering itself. More to the point, it does a better job at parallel parking than many humans — including yours truly.

Kicking out the jams
Other driver assistance systems also come to mind, including adaptive cruise control and collision avoidance technology. When you add them all up, it becomes obvious that the self-driving car is coming along nicely, thank you. Moreover, it's moving downmarket.

For instance, Ford recently announced Traffic Jam Assist, a combination of active cruise control and lane-position technology already available on the Focus, Escape, and Fusion. Using cameras and radar sensors, the new system will help the car stay in its lane and keep pace with other vehicles.

The Ford system signals an important trend. In a recent article, Doug Newcomb quoted Ian Riches of Strategy Analytics as saying. “In 2009, over 70 percent of ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) technology was fitted to premium vehicles. By 2019, we’re forecasting only around 40 percent of ADAS will be on these premium vehicles..."

It don't come easy
Don't get me wrong. I realize that building a fully (or mostly) autonomous car is an immense challenge. Making it affordable is an even bigger challenge. But clearly, things are moving along. And, as my colleague Andy Gryc has pointed out, the sheer difficulty of achieving autonomy is precisely what will motivate some extremely intelligent people to pony up to the challenge.

Personally, I don't know what fascinates me more: the engineering behind these advances or that people are becoming accustomed to letting go — of their steering wheels, of their gas pedals, of being in control. It's an interesting socialization process.

Either way, one thing is for sure: the self-driving future really ain't what it used to be. Because, this time, it's real.

Moving pictures
Enough talk. Here's a video of Ford's proposed Traffic Jam Assist system, which can take of steering, braking, and acceleration in stop/start traffic:



  1. Yes, it is a work in progress and things are getting better definitely. The core idea of eliminating road accidents through self-driving cars does have merit and should be enough motivation for inventors to work things out until perfection or least serviceability happens.

  2. You may be right that the development is not what people expect it to be. But, as some people say it, developments are gradually changing. We might not be able to see a fully capable driverless car, but at least we can see some progress with other features. For example, we now have cruise control, blind spot detection, and parking sensors. I think people will be able to witness the birth of a fully capable driverless in the future – all it takes is time.