2013: The rise of the robot cars

Will 2013 see robot cars on our roads? The future is closer than you think, especially with the advances in technology pioneered by the likes of Google.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

William Gibson once noted, "The future is here, it's just unevenly distributed". You may not have a jet pack, or a protein pill, but they're out there, somewhere. And there is one bit of the future that's on its way to you sooner rather than later: the robot car – or at the very least, a lot of robot assistance in how you drive.

Industry analyst Mark Anderson recently made a set of predictions for 2013, one of which focused on the commercial arrival of autonomous vehicles, the robot cars of our fictional tomorrows.

Of course, automated driving has been the stuff of science fiction for decades. There have been novels set on the automated highways of a future America, with poets in retro-fitted Volvos on the managed roads in Orange County, in cities and on freeways all across the world. But tomorrow's ubiquitous robot cars owe more to the defence industry than works of fiction.

The face of today's robot car owes a lot to the autonomous vehicles developed for Google by Stanford's Sebastian Thrun. His work on Stanford's entries in the DARPA Grand Challenge competition led to the development of the first winner, Stanley, and the runner up, Junior, in the second competition. Autonomous vehicles make a lot of sense to the military. Convoys can be run more efficiently, and fallible human drivers can be supported by machines on days-long journeys across deserts and on tedious concrete roads.

Stanley uses a mix of sensors and machine-learning techniques to build a picture of the world around it, a technique that's been refined in the Google cars. LIDAR sensors paint the world, illuminating obstacles and hazards and allowing software to plot paths around and through them. With Google's cars now having run for hundreds of thousands of miles on the hectic roads of Silicon Valley (and we've spotted them as far afield as Sacramento), they have algorithms that have been refined through the fire of Friday evening traffic on 101.

LIDAR map of a crowded convention hall, as made by a Google self-driving car (Credit: Simon Bisson)

Now robot cars are able to drive on the roads in California and Nevada – without a driver at the wheel – and with other US states looking to see the results. You still can't insure a robot car, but adding some aspects of autonomous driving to a human-controlled vehicle can help to keep your premiums down.

Buy a premium car, and you'll find the options now include features like automatic radar-controlled braking and self-parking. They're all safety features that aim to reduce the risk associated with driving a tonne and a half of steel and high explosive at high speed inches from other lethal weapons. Automatic brakes use software to determine risk and then apply themselves appropriately. Meanwhile more and more sensors need more and more software to inform the driver and to control the increasingly complex engines and powertrains in a modern car.

The LIDAR mount on a Google self-driving car (Credit: Simon Bisson)

The underlying technologies are familiar. Doppler radar and LIDAR are used in conjunction with optical sensors and GPGPU processing to feed data into machine learning systems that are programmed to identify threats. A moose leaps out into the road in front of you? ABS brakes are automatically applied to help you steer around danger – or at the very least, reduce the risk of harm to you and your passengers by pre-arming airbags and other safety systems. 

Ford has been looking at how sensors and car-to-car anonymous communications can make the roads safer. It's somewhat unnerving sitting in the passenger seat of an SUV while another hurtles towards you on a test track, even knowing that the vehicles will slow down automatically and encourage the drivers to take appropriate evasive action with haptics built into the steering wheel. While not every car has a GPS system broadcasting its position on a public Wi-Fi system, it's a technology that's relatively easy to build into new cars.

Of course, without government legislation, or nudges from insurance companies, it's unlikely that we'll see autonomous cars on our roads in large numbers for many years. But as more and more urban drivers move away from car ownership, and start using shared car services, there's scope for autonomous vehicles to become part of the business model of tomorrow's Zipcar. Book a car on your smartphone, and instead of having to go to the nearest pick-up point, the car arrives at your door when you need it – and heads back to a depot or the next driver when you're done. Autonomous cars make car sharing easier, and more flexible, changing the underlying economic model and making it far more attractive.

Robot cars are here – and they're not going away. Whether on the streets of our cities or in warzones, they're going to change the way we drive and the way we use cars, sooner rather than later.

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