Self-driving cars - the future of motoring?

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Have you ever wondered what it would be like being driven to work by your own car? Perhaps the stuff of science fiction, it's a concept that people in the field of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) have been trying to make reality since the late 1950i.

"Autonomous" technologies are already being implemented in today's cars - for example cars with self-parking systems. In the Australian market, Ford's Focus, Volkswagen's Golf and Tiguan and others (including Lexus and Toyota models) have the technology installedii. But, while this technology is undeniably innovative, what about a car that is completely automated? A car that can cope with all the demands of urban driving including stop-start traffic, potential accidents, parking and roads with speed limits? With the on-road testing of Google's self-driving car, there are some who think this dream has been recently realisediii.

You wouldn't let your dog drive your car, but would you let your car drive itself? Self-driving technologies are currently being tested on roads in the USA.

A self-driving car

For the past few years, Google has been working on their self-driving car projectiii. Google installed technology in Toyota Prius and Lexus RX 450h vehicles, which have been road-tested for more than 482,803 kilometres on roads in Nevada and Floridaiv. According to Google, these cars have not been in a single accident while under computer controlv. Self-driving vehicles are not yet being tested in Australia.

How does it work?

Google's car works by using sensors, GPS and computer systems. A laser mounted on the roof of the car generates a detailed 3D map of the vehicle's surrounding environmentvi. The system in the car combines laser measurements with pre-installed, high-res maps. Different types of data models are produced and it "drives", avoiding sensed obstacles while respecting traffic lawsvi. Radars, mounted on the front and rear bumpers, enable the car to "see" the traffic conditions around itvi and a camera, positioned near the rear-view mirror, detects traffic light signalsvi.

Brin, co-founder and CEO of Google, has said that he hopes that within five years, self-driving cars will be available for driving on public streetsiv.

But are they safe?

Spokespeople from Google have said that a major goal of the project is to provide vehicles that are safer than human-driven carsiii. After all, many accidents on the road can be attributed to human erroriv. But, not surprisingly, safety has also been a major challenge in the development of such self-driving cars. For example, computer system failure is a potential problem that could have devastating consequences on the roadiv. It's also important to note that CEO of Google, Sergey Brin, has said that the furthest the Google Car has gone before requiring "safety-critical intervention" - where a human driver had to take control - has been about 50,000 milesiv.

Developers of self-driving cars and automatic technology hope to reduce the number of accidents on the road vii

Furthermore, few tests have been carried out on road conditions or terrains that human drivers find challenging yet encounter on a daily basis. In the next stage of testing, Google has its sights set on mastering more difficult situations such as snow-covered roadways, interpreting temporary construction signals and handling other tricky situationsv.

Cars of today

Self-parking technology and accident prevention systems are already being fitted into vehicles on the marketvii. Earlier in the year, Bosch Australia unveiled its Back Over Avoidance (BOA) system, which taps into the vehicles stability control system and is able to, using ultrasound sensors, automatically apply the brakes when it detects something is obstructing its pathvii. Gavin Smith, president of Bosch Australia, believes that with enough technology in the car - the sensing, the cameras and the radar - you can avoid collisionsvii.

It is hoped that all this technology, from self-driving cars to self-parking and automatic-braking systems installed in vehicles, will be able to prevent on-road collisions in future. But before this technology is perfected and becomes available on the market, human error continues to play a large part in accidents involving vehicles.

i Milanes, V., Gonzalez, C., Llorca, D.F., Sotelo, M.A., Vinagre, B.M., 2010, Evolution of an Autonomous Car,, p.1

ii, 2011, Ask the experts: A car that parks itself for less than $40,000?,

iii Thrun, S., 2010, What we’re driving at, Google Official Blog,

iv Nicolai, J., 2012, Self-driving cars a reality for 'ordinary people' within 5 years, says Google's Sergey Brin, ComputerWorld,

v Urmson, C., 2012, The self-driving car logs more miles on new wheels, Google Official Blog,

vi Guizzo, E., 2011 How Google's Self-Driving Car Works, ieee spectrum,

vii Porter, I., 2012, Autonomous cars soon,