Why self-driving cars are the next big thing in safety and efficiency

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 August, 2013, 11:55am

Drivers today who check their smartphone while at the wheel might be living dangerously, but in the future, multi-tasking while driving might be encouraged. According to the inventors of self-driving cars, by 2040 we could all be busy reading, playing video games or surfing the web while being chauffeured around by computer-controlled systems that require almost no input from humans.

It might seem risky, but technically it's the exact opposite. Google's experimental camera and sensor-packed autonomous car is legally roadworthy in the US, and in the more than 48,000 kilometres driven last year it had only one minor accident - and that was when it was being driven by a human. A computer doesn't get distracted by passengers or the radio; it can simultaneously look at a map and drive; and there's little danger of it misjudging the speed or braking distance of either itself or other vehicles.

With 1.24 million people killed each year on the roads, according to the World Health Organisation, and car use expected to quadruple by 2050, the reasons self-driving cars are being developed are obvious. Major carmakers, including Nissan, Volvo, BMW and Audi, have all unveiled autonomous car prototypes because they see computer control as the next big step in improving safety and maximising fuel-efficiency.

"By making cars more aware of their environment and giving them the on-board intelligence to make real-time decisions based on that awareness, it is possible to increase road safety, ease traffic congestion and minimise CO2 emissions," says Shanghai-based Drue Freeman, senior vice-president of global automotive sales and marketing at NXP Semiconductors.

"The benefits of cars that 'think' will be especially relevant in Asia's mega-cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, which suffer from traffic congestion, noise, pollution and a high risk of accidents."

The autonomous car will also be online, communicating with centralised citywide navigation systems to create real-time routing to shorten journeys.

There are 9,730 published patent applications and patents relating to self-driving vehicles
John-Paul Rooney, patent lawyer

"Once vehicles have sensors, they can download and upload traffic information to decide what is the best route to follow at a particular time," says Antonio Espingardeiro, independent robotics expert and member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Whether humans are ready to hand over the keys is another matter. "Some people see driving as a means to get from point A to point B, while others enjoy the journey and revel in the interaction between human and machine," says Freeman, who thinks manual and autonomous cars can co-exist. "Drivers who simply want to get from one destination to another in the shortest period of time will have the option of letting the car do all the work."

Though technically possible already, the fully autonomous car won't be sold as a finished product, rather it will evolve from driver assistance technologies already in use.

"There are a number of cars that have started to take over some of the driving tasks for us," says Freeman. "Automatic braking when you get too close to the car in front of you is an example, or systems that keep you centred in your lane."

Other examples include assisted parking, blind spot detection and cruise control, none of which have anything like the baggage of phrases such as "robot cars". The industry is keen to keep it that way. "We believe automation will act as an assistance feature supporting the creation of better drivers, providing increasingly more capable cars that make driving safer - always keeping the drivers in control," is the official line of Ford Motor Company.

However, the British authorities perhaps have something different in mind, having just funded autonomous vehicle testing. Oxford University's RobotCar UK project saw a modified Nissan Leaf electric car fitted with a HK$1,150 navigation computer system that uses small, discreet cameras and lasers to create a 3-D map of its surroundings. Controlled by an iPad mounted on the dashboard, the robot can automatically drive a route it's already travelled, though it relinquishes all control the moment the human driver taps the brake pedal.

"Instead of imagining some cars driving themselves all the time, we should imagine a time when all cars can drive themselves some of the time," says Professor Paul Newman at Oxford University's department of engineering science. "The sort of very low cost, low footprint autonomy we are developing is what's needed for everyday use."

If you need more proof that the self-driving car is coming, look no further than the intellectual property market. "According to one patents database, there are 9,730 published patent applications and patents relating to self-driving vehicles," says John-Paul Rooney, partner and patent lawyer at Withers & Rogers, one of Britain's leading patents and trademarks law firms. Rooney says this indicates a significant level of confidence in the potential market for autonomous cars, with leading players in the patent race including General Motors, Honeywell, Bosch, Daimler, Toyota, Siemens, Denso, Deere, Volkswagen and - somewhat recently - Google.

A search of the patents database reveals another trend, with around two-thirds of autonomous car patents relating to the internet and connectivity. Smartphone apps that show vehicle speed, mileage, fluid levels and maintenance schedules seem well-suited to cars in which the "driver" suddenly has little need to look at the road, but a well-connected autonomous car could do much more, such as communicating with the owner's home.

"These developments could also allow further integration of electric devices linked to the home, as sophisticated heating and cooking systems, for example, could be switched on … based on the movement or proximity of a vehicle," says Rooney.

Perhaps air conditioning could be triggered when the car is three blocks from home, or security lighting activated when it drives away. "Car parks, hotels and shops may also be able to reach out to nearby vehicles to advertise their proximity," says Rooney. "All of this is made more desirable if the driver of the vehicle does not have to actually drive."

Piloted driving technologies will continue to creep into cars, though further ahead we could all become permanent passengers. Such is the idea behind road-trains and platooning, where groups of cars automatically keep a steady, fast pace to reduce the distance between them, thus allowing busier roads to flow freely. "The essence of platooning is real-time processing and wireless communication where vehicles communicate with each other to maintain speeds and safe distances to cars in front," Espingardeiro explains.

However, there are technology issues. "You would also want real-time zero-latency connectivity between cars so that each vehicle is completely aware of what is going on with the other cars," says Freeman. "A connection would then be required with the infrastructure to monitor and dynamically adjust speed limits."

Platooning and wireless road networks are a few decades away, though the idea of the autonomous vehicle is not new; autopilot was first used in aircraft in 1912, less than a decade after flight itself was pioneered, while cars have been built around computers for just 20 years. Whether drivers accept autonomous cars is a question of the language used, not the technology: just don't say "robot". [email protected]