Books written by Ray Sullivan

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Self Drive Cars Getting Closer

Google have been playing around with self drive cars for some time.  They drove one around San Francisco for twelve months with a professional driver and a software programmer on-board.  The driver was there to intervene if the software got it wrong and was needed to prevent a crash.  The programmer was there to, well I guess he was there to write emergency code in the event of a crash.  Or to reboot if the OS failed.  OK, I don't actually know what benefit the programmer contributed but at least he kept the professional driver  company and could spot software glitches for fixing later.

Anyway, the driver only had to intervene once, and that was to badmouth an errant driver who ran up the backside of the Google-mobile.  All in all the exercise was a success and in fact in May last year Google was awarded a drivers license for its self drive car by the State of Nevada.

This is one of the spin off benefits Google has been aiming for with its Google Earth, maps and street view software.  The incredibly labour intensive generation of these programs which appear to have been donated for free to you and me has been for one reason only - to support high technology innovations such as self drive cars.

Why would we want cars to drive themselves, when driving is such fun?  Well, driving can be fun, is fun some of the time, but it's also often tedious, demanding and, let's face it, dangerous.  It doesn't matter how good a driver you are, or how carefully you drive for that matter, it only takes one inexperienced, drunk, tired or distracted driver in another vehicle to write you off.  And to be honest, most of us aren't really good drivers, or careful ones, all of the time.  We all have bad days, tired days, distracted periods and even if we don't drive back from the pub some of us will drive to work or the shops the morning after a session and probably aren't strictly sober at the time.

We're normal, I guess.

But one or a handful of self drive cars on the road won't make the roads a particularly safer place for you and me.  Sure, if we're in the cockpit of such a car it seems likely that it can avoid most of the problems we see on the roads today, but it will need a majority of cars to be driven by computers to make the process really beneficial.  On their own the self drive cars will be reactive and defensive in nature, using sensors to detect the positions, velocities and vectors of all surrounding vehicles.  It will be able to access the latest information about the road, the weather, the traffic jams and, assuming it knows where it's going, it can constantly monitor the determined route to optimise it to compensate for traffic jams and road works.

Get all of the cars on the road fitted out with the technology, though, and you've got an organism that can feed off each other.  They can share their individual destinations and route plans and can determine the optimum plan for all the vehicles on the road.  If there are a minimum of vehicles being driven manually then the defensive methodologies being developed today will kick in and accommodate them.

Perhaps the thorniest problem will be around whether you can allow non-drivers to use self drive cars without a license holder, or even if one can be used to pick up a group of tanked up passengers from the pub at chucking out time?

Is all of this science fiction?  Well, clearly not in Nevada, they've probably considered the subject of responsibility already.  Whether their determinations will be readily accepted across the board, in other States of the US as well in countries such as the UK, remains to be seen.  But at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show in that State next week there are going to be announcements about self drive cars.  Specifically the Japanese car manufacturer Toyota is showcasing  a prototype Lexus that is fitted with advanced technology that monitors whether the driver is awake and can keep the car on the road and stop safely at traffic lights using sensors that take into account other vehicles and even pedestrians.

Perhaps Nevada is going to be issuing another drivers license to a machine next week.

Related stories:

Apple to buy Tom-Tom


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