8.27.2005You know, in case my future biographers are keeping tabs.
From The Economist
Aug 25th 2005
From The Economist print edition
The self-driving car comes closer—but difficulties remain
IT IS an old chestnut—a car that drives itself—but General Motors, the world's largest car manufacturer, has become the latest company to claim to be building one. The car uses updated technology combined with several existing innovations and, according to the manufacturer, could be in production by 2008. But, while the technology takes some of the boring bits out of driving, it falls far short of an automatic taxi service and, anyway, various legal, technical and social barriers to its introduction remain.
The latest prototype currently being tested is based on an Opel Vectra, a mid-sized family car. It is undergoing evaluation near the headquarters of Adam Opel, General Motors' European subsidiary in Rüsselsheim, Germany.
The car has automatic cruise control of the sort fitted to many expensive cars such as Jaguars and BMWs. These use either radar or infrared beams fitted to the front of the car to measure the distance to the car in front. That distance is kept constant by automatic acceleration and braking.
But conventional automatic cruise control fails at speeds of less than 30kph (20mph). To circumvent this problem, the new car uses lidar—short for “light detection and ranging”—a measuring technology similar to radar but which uses laser beams rather than radio waves to measure distance and determine the speed of other vehicles. As light waves have shorter wavelengths than radio waves, the technology works at shorter distances and lower speeds. Indeed, the prototype has a distance-keeping system that will brake to a standstill, and move off again when the car in front moves.
This advanced version of automatic cruise control works alongside a system that corrects the car when it drifts out of its lane. Almost two million accidents a year worldwide are thought to be caused by drivers inadvertently changing lanes, frequently caused by drowsiness.
At present, only a few cars have lane-departure warning systems. In America, the technology is available on the FX45 model from Infiniti, Nissan's luxury car division. In Europe, the Citroën C4 and C5 models have it while, in Japan, some Toyota models are fitted with it. These systems use camera images or near-range radar to determine the direction and position of the vehicle in relation to lane markings. When the system recognises that a lane departure is imminent, it bleeps or flashes to alert the driver. Some systems even try to rouse the driver by making the steering wheel or the seat vibrate.
Again, the new car takes this a step further. A camera mounted on the windscreen behind the rear-view mirror gives a clear view of the road ahead, picking up the white lines even in poor visibility or where the paint has faded. The camera works in conjunction with laser beams mounted in the headlamp unit. There is a second advantage to using lasers in preference to radar: while they have a similar range, laser sensors have a significantly wider field of vision. Existing systems can see only straight ahead and the nearside lane marking. The prototype can see more than twice as widely as this. Together, the camera and laser sensors monitor the white lines and, if the car strays out of its lane, an electronic control unit attached to an electric power-steering unit corrects it.
The system is unlikely to have a smooth ride into production, however, despite achieving what General Motors says is a very high level of reliability during the development stage. Several obstacles stand in the way.
For example, self-steering cars are currently illegal in most European countries. Carmakers want the law changed to allow them, but they are also keen not to be held legally responsible for any accidents which result. Drafting legislation which would make it attractive for carmakers to introduce the technology, but still allow some recourse for those hurt if something goes wrong, could prove tricky.
In addition, most people relish driving. One reason why people feel safer in their cars than on public transport is because they are in control of the vehicle.
Moreover, whether in the stop-go traffic of the daily rush hour or on the motorway, the system relies on having a car in front that is travelling to the same destination. On the open road, the driver must drive.
Still, the technology appears affordable. General Motors says it is looking at a price of less than €1,500 ($1,830) to have it fitted to a new range of cars due in 2008.
European governments have set a target of halving road deaths by 2010. General Motors hopes that improved technology can help meet that goal.
Discussion question: Imagine in the future that all cars are robotically driven. Would it be incorrect to say that there are still 'rules of the road'? What about driving etiquette and conventions? If so, to whom do those conventions apply?