Leave the Driving… to Your Car

Have an important package for a customer but don’t have the time to drive it over yourself? No worries, send the autonomous car.

Need to pick up the kids from school but you’re in the middle of making a soufflé? No worries, send the autonomous car.

Sounds like the Jetsons, but it’s really not that far off. In 2010, Italy’s VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge sent four driverless vehicles on a little 9,400-mile jaunt from Parma, Italy, to Shanghai, China, without incident. Google has logged over 140,000 test driving hours in its fleet of autonomous vehicles in and around the Bay Area. And the State of Nevada — with lobbying from Google — passed a bill that asks the Department of Motor Vehicles to define regulations that will set the rules for approving these types of vehicles for use on public roads.

Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen are integrating suites of sensors in some of their models today that provide semi-autonomous driving capabilities for drivers. They are being marketed as safety backups. And BMW, Ford, Lexus and Toyota all have driverless parallel parking in some of their models. You’ve probably seen the Ford TV commercials that demonstrate the capability.

Evidence that the autonomous vehicle trend may soon become mainstream comes from an IHS report last month that projects rapid growth in the worldwide demand for “park assist” and “lane-departure warning” sensors. IHS projects these two components will grow to 18 million units by 2015, up from just under 1 million in 2010. These are systems that are preparing the driving public for a future of fully autonomous vehicles.

Proponents of autonomous vehicles point to their purported advantages. Because the systems are more reliable and are never distracted (and never text while driving), they will result in fewer accidents. And traffic flow and roadway capacity will improve because of reduced safety gaps required between vehicles. And, of course, if you’re home making a soufflé you can send the car to pick up the kids.

Already the value of the average car comprises about 40 percent electronics. These systems will boost that figure to what: 70, 80, or 90 percent?

They will include light detection and ranging (LIDAR) sensors first developed by the Department of Defense. Google has outfitted one of its Toyota Priuses with a LIDAR system made by Velodyne that uses 64 lasers spinning at approximately 900 RPM, according to Wired magazine. Then there’s radar and a host of other sensors required to monitor both the external environment and vehicle systems.

What’s required to integrate all this data, and keep the passengers safe at the same time, is a comprehensive control system, which is “easier said than done,” according to IHS. It’s both a technical and cost challenge that may delay the appearance of autonomous vehicles in the local dealer’s showroom. But if the march of technologies past is anything to go on, that day will likely come within the next decade or so.

And when it does appear, the average family sedan will no longer be an engine and a drive train. It will be a mobile datacenter, processing terabytes of data every time you need to send the car to get some milk at the corner store.

It will change the very nature of what we think of as a “car,” which could shepherd in some very interesting opportunities. For instance, when the car is parked overnight in the driveway perhaps its control system can be rented out for data processing. After all, it will be Internet enabled.

That’s the day when the Internet of Things will start to get very interesting.

22 comments on “Leave the Driving… to Your Car

  1. Barbara Jorgensen
    March 14, 2012

    Gladly! Any automobile with a smidge of smart technology is better qualified to drive than most people in Boston. All kidding aside, I think relinquishing control over the car to the car won't go over with some people (I'm speaking to the beer-guzzling, muscle-car-buying, cat-hating constituents out there 🙂 I'd be more than happy to send my car on its merry electronics way. And if it fetches my groceries, even better.

  2. prabhakar_deosthali
    March 15, 2012

    Leave aside the private vehicles , which maty take some more time to automate, but atelast automate all those public transport vehicles – the school buses, the trains, the pickup vans and those goods delivery trucks and finally those taxis. Automating them will make them follow all the traffic rules diligently, nor more rash driving, no more rude taxi drivers, no more taking longer than required routes and fleecing the passengers.


  3. stochastic excursion
    March 15, 2012

    It's a logical next step to take in automotive technology, and a huge next step in terms of engineering challenges.  Sure we can get a few robots to share the road without colliding, using control systems.  Multiply that by a million and I wonder if you'd get the throughput we have today on some US freeways. 

    Things like queuing theory,  chaos theory and many-body dynamics come into play with interacting systems on that scale.  I would be surprised to see a return to rail in some form to deal with the stability problems.

  4. Adeniji Kayode
    March 15, 2012

    I agree with the fact that smart cars so to say will make more sense in the area of school buses and  commercial transport vechiles. It can also go a long way to reduce accident and to a large extent, prevent it.


  5. syedzunair
    March 15, 2012

    Safety and accident prevention may not be the only factors. One use case for such cars could be to transport the physically challenged. Driving around for such individuals is extremely difficult if not impossible. These cars will allow them to commute without putting a burden on their families. 

  6. Himanshugupta
    March 15, 2012

    A driverless road transportation will be a leap forward. Gone would be the days of stressful hours of driving a car, got struck in the traffic and nothing more to do than just wait behind the wheel. 

    I think that our technology is matured enough to start pilot programs in some places and learn/improve the system. I wonder what is keeping the auto companies waiting except maybe cost and clear government guidelines.

  7. Anna Young
    March 15, 2012

    A driverless car sounds perfect! I'll say yes please. I note the advantages are numerous – fantastic. I'm just wondering, what are the disadvantages? this is robotic – right? So what happens when something goes wrong?

  8. elctrnx_lyf
    March 17, 2012

    This will definitely become a reality in the next five years. But all this needs a great infrastructure and rightly designated parking ares which can be easily understand by the automatic cars.

  9. Nemos
    March 17, 2012

    Have an important package for a customer but don't have the time to drive it over yourself? No worries, send the autonomous car “. Autonomous car ; my dream when I was a little child .I think we have now all the knowledge and the technology to bring the “autonomous car” from the dream zone to the reality. It is amazing when your dreams became real.

  10. t.alex
    March 18, 2012

    I think traffic laws need to have more points added. Will a drunk driver/passenger still be allowed on these cars?

  11. Daniel
    March 19, 2012

    “And when it does appear, the average family sedan will no longer be an engine and a drive train. It will be a mobile datacenter, processing terabytes of data every time you need to send the car to get some milk at the corner store”

    It seems that a car can be converted to a multipurpose utility. Good, when car is in idle situation, its components can do multiple other functions, which can be of very much beneficial. If it has other facilities like generating power and storing it for next run, then energy conservation can also maintain.

  12. Adeniji Kayode
    March 19, 2012


    It was said that the efficiency of wevery machine is less than 100%,

    so which meas that you cant expect 100% perfformance from machine, so while adverse effect may be expected, sometimes it is hard to pridict .

  13. Anna Young
    March 19, 2012

    Kayode, that is true you cannot expect 100% from a machine's performance. So in other words, is it safe to suggest that ultimate reliance on a robotic car maybe far removed?

  14. Adeniji Kayode
    March 20, 2012


    Well, I find it hard to say yes because even our daily activities don,t not make thing easy, we have to somehow depend on robots to do alot of thing for us and that keeps increasing day by day

  15. Anna Young
    March 25, 2012

    Rightly so Kayode. However, without basic input from a human point of things, it's practically impossible to operate a robotic machine. Which in effect shows inadequacy both ways.

  16. itguyphil
    March 25, 2012

    The rail point brings me to a question regarding the use of this technology. As I look at trains, trolleys on the road, I wonder how cars would factor into the situation. Would this mean that there would have to be mass reconstruction of existing roads to make it all work. If it is GPS/satellite based, what happens on a cloudy day OR when reception is interfered. I think it is a good idea but needs some work before it goes mainstream.

  17. Wale Bakare
    March 25, 2012

    As much as technologies open door to unlimited opportunities so also challenges. I dont really think that could cause headache to both designers and manufacturers of driverless cars.

    Meanwhile, this is another unexplored area where embedded technology application can perfectly handle. Road digitization with real -time techniques – sychronization of real timing based problem and sensor, typical example.

  18. Anne
    March 26, 2012

    This is going to revolutionalize the automoblie with low rate of accidents and better driving  environment, but my concern is what if the control system fails?

  19. Clairvoyant
    March 26, 2012

    Good point, Anne. Also, what occurs when bugs occur in software controlled systems, or the software is not smart enough to compensate for certain circumstances? Ideally, there are no software bugs to fix, but there most likely will be a certain amount if/when these products are first released. I think there will be a percentage of the public that will be against it.

  20. itguyphil
    March 26, 2012

    I don't necessarily disagree with you BUT won't the cost factor to implement such technologies be high due to the necessary foundations for the embedded technologies and road digitization?

  21. Wale Bakare
    March 26, 2012

    In actual fact, am just wondering whether human beings can ever attain an absolute level of perfection in technology and at the same time, we cant underestimate the work of  researchers in the field of robotics and machine learning/articial intelligence. I think, specialised set of technology is handling that part, though.

    A more complex example, Aeroplane –  FLY-BY-WIRE flight control system, is an electronic interface designed to replace conventional manual control system of plane. Fly -by-wire has 3 major functions — (1) It sends flight control inform of electronic signal transmitted by wire (2) The computer – deals with movement of  Actuators to surface whilst at control surface to provide commanded response (3) it performs functional computation by automating signals without Pilot's input.




  22. Clairvoyant
    March 27, 2012

    I think a big issue with Autonomous cars will be their ability to react to many different scenarios, and scenarios never being the same. Driving conditions can continually change, whether it be the road conditions (snow, rain, etc), tire treadwear, suspension components wearing out, defensive driving, etc, etc. It is hard to say if a self-driving car will ever be able to perform better than an experienced driver at handling these scenarios. It would take a lot of work to develop the software and hardware, then processing power of the car to handle constantly varying conditions.

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