Annually, over one million people lose their lives to road carnages. Although the government tries to curb the situation, the number of car accident related deaths are reduced only by a small margin. Due to this, methods to handle road accidents and traffic jams have been a trending discussion for quite a long duration of time. Among the ideas presented to curb this, traffic lights and other inventions have been introduced in the transport sector. However, the idea that seems to be most efficient is the automation of vehicles. Since a few years, technology has been applied to cars to aid them in different tasks. Among these tasks are; car parking, acceleration and even observing distance between cars. Most recently, talks about autonomous vehicles (also called self-driving vehicles and driverless vehicles) got into the market and seem to be welcomed by many.
What is a driverless vehicle?
A driverless vehicle is one that can operate to predetermined destinations free of a human driver. This is possible as the car is fitted with coordinate sensors and software that controls its navigation. With this in place, vehicles may be able to operate under no or minimal human involvement similar to autopilot in aeroplanes. With the introduction of this technology, traffic jams are expected to be reduced significantly and fewer car accidents will be seen. However, with immature levels of technology in early years, the idea proved to be an expensive endeavour, and thus little progress was evidenced. As years passed by, several car manufacturers showed interest in this idea leading to some manufacturers even producing precursors. Although the concept is still under construction, it is evident that it will revolutionize the transportation sector majorly.
How do self-driving cars work?
To efficiently navigate, a self-driving car needs to be well conversant with what’s happening in its surroundings and the geological appearance of the general area. This enables the car to make optimum decisions on deciding which route is best to take and also to avoid it from running into obstacles. To achieve this, driverless vehicles are integrated with GPS mapping, sensor lasers, a windscreen camera and advanced control systems for interpretation of information from the sensors. The data so obtained is incorporated into the car’s map through a simultaneous localization and mapping algorithm thus creating a clear picture of its surroundings.
The windscreen camera and the bumper mounted radar keep track of pedestrians, motorists, street lights, road signs, traffic lights and other vehicles around the car. These are also fed into the vehicle’s mapping system ensuring that the car follows traffic rules and allows pedestrians to cross. For more accurate results a driverless car is fitted with gyroscopes, altimeters and a tachometer. Additionally, it is equipped with an odometer and computer vision that helps to decode the information in a manner that the vehicles inbuilt software can interpret. For better projection of what are in its surroundings, the car uses newer range Lidar (light detection and range) sensors as they provide a more precise image compared to GPS. To ensure that the vehicle is operated similarly to that by a professional driver, the software is programmed with neural networks that represent real driving experiences. This allows the car to take the best course of action in different situations. These neurons also enable the vehicle to decipher approaching bodies thus ensuring it responds accordingly to avoid incidents.
Classification of self-driving vehicles
With driverless vehicles being designed, there are different levels of automation as classified by SAE international. This ranges from a “hands-on” driving experience to a “driver-free” mode of driving. In each of these levels, the driver’s involvement gets lesser as computers take over the operation of the vehicle.
- Level 0 (“zero automation”) vehicles at this level are controlled by the driver. This means no braking assistance, acceleration or steering controls as they have zero self-driving features. However, this may have systems that warn the driver of imminent threats but do not take any course of action.
- Level 1(“hands-on”) at this level, the car and the driver share responsibilities in operating the car. This means that either the car controls speed and the driver steers the car or vice versa. However, in this level, the car cannot handle both acceleration and steering of the vehicle. Additionally, this level may feature parking assistance; lane assist or emergency braking. Vehicles in this level also feature electronic stability controls and antilock braking systems.
- Level 2 (“partial hands off”) in this category, the vehicle can handle acceleration, braking and steering independently. However, the driver needs to be attentive as the car does not handle real driving experiences on its own. This may manoeuvre other tasks like switching lanes provided that it is fed accurate commands.
- Level 3(“conditional automation”) in this level, the car can handle most of the situations that may arise when manoeuvring regular traffic. However, this may need some guidance from the driver in some cases as there are some traffic situations it is not programmed to handle.
- Level 4(“high automation”) vehicles at this level are almost fully autonomous hence the driver involvement is less. For instance, when the system shows a glitch, the car slows down its speed and if well programmed, pulls off the road. Additionally, the car may engage its four-way flashers if fitted with onboard telematics to signal other cars to avoid its lane. However, the vehicle cannot cover areas that are unmapped or pass through areas with stormy conditions as onboard cameras get a poor coverage of its surrounding. In such circumstances, the vehicle may slow down and switch to parking if the driver fails to take command of controlling the car.
- Level 5(“fully automated”) vehicles in these level are in the top pedestal of vehicle automation. These can operate in all areas free of the driver’s aid. Whether in unmapped regions or rough weathers, the car can easily navigate without showing any challenges. (So far no such cars are there.)
Advantages of self-driving vehicles
- Given that most road accidents arise from reckless driving and driving under the influence of drugs, self-driving is expected to reduce the percentage of road accidents by a considerable fraction. This given that vehicles will observe appropriate distances between each other and thus lesser chances of crashing into each other.
- Since the vehicles will reduce accidents with a significant fraction, it will be expected for some cost to be saved as fewer insurance covers will be used and lesser amounts of money used on accident recovery. With this, the insurance policies are speculated to reduce as chances of car damages will be relatively low compared to current tally.
- Additionally, self-driven vehicles will be expected to reduce traffic congestions as each car will follow traffic rules and thus preventing blockages caused by driver’s ignorance. Due to this, gasoline usage will be reduced as vehicles will have shorter idling periods in traffic jams.
- Unlike vehicles that require the driver’s assistance to operate, self-driving vehicles will be more comfortable for disabled individuals to operate.
- Higher speed limits may be put into consideration as these vehicles will be able to handle various situations appropriately avoiding any accidents. This would, in turn, reduce the driving time needed to cover distances cutting transportation costs.
- With driverless vehicles, there will be less struggle to locating a parking lot as your car will quickly drop you off and get a parking space independently.
- Given that self-driven vehicles might be made in a manner that they use eco-friendly energy sources, there will be lesser environmental pollution and thus cleaner and more palatable cities.
- With a ready market for self-driven vehicles, production will need to be in large-scale to fill the demand. This will create more job opportunities.
- Since vehicles will be operating independent of a driver, it will be possible to reorganise the vehicles mechanical parts thus creating space for more powerful engines. This will lead to the manufacturing of powerful vehicles that will be able to tackle roads with least struggle and consuming lesser energy than the current models.
- Although everybody is speculating the coming of self-driven vehicles in the market, it is unarguable that they will cost a fortune once released. This will be mainly as a result of the expensive workforce and the high cost of technology required. However, the price may go down within years as technology gets better than it is currently and a competitive hand appears on the market.
- Like any programmed device is prone to have a glitch, so is that of self-driven vehicles. This may lead to severe injuries or even worse loss of lives.
- These vehicles will cause a significant fall in insurance policies as the risk covered will be small. This will lead to the collapse of some firms and lesser profit margins for other firms.
- These vehicles are likely to have more repair charges if anything goes wrong.
- In case of traffic light failure, the vehicles may end up getting stranded as they are designed in a manner that they follow traffic rules.
- Some personnel ranging from personal injury lawyers may end up losing their jobs as there will be few accidents.
Challenges for implementing fully self-driving vehicles
Among the challenges that face introduction of self-driven vehicles in the market, high costs of production top the list. The reason for this being that the parts and personnel required to bring this technology to life is costly. Additionally, existing technological levels are a little immature for the venture and need several advancements. Also, these vehicles will be slow in manoeuvring situations that are easily handled by humans. For instance, fixing itself between a lane to overtake a car wrongly parked by the sidewalk or even a broken down car on the road.