An autonomous/ driverless/ self-driving or robotic car is a vehicle that is capable of sensing its surroundings while navigating without human intervention to a predetermined destination over roads. Autonomous cars mix a variety of techniques to make sense of their surroundings. Some of these techniques include sensors, laser lights, cameras, GPS, radars, artificial intelligence, neutral networks, image recognition systems and computer vision. It is believed that self-driving cars will provide enhanced mobility for children, elderly and the disabled while relieving driving and navigation chores, and at the same time lower fuel consumption and facilitate shared transportation services. The car industry rates self-driving technology on a scale from Level 0 to Level 5.

Level 1: This includes systems that can control steering and acceleration/deceleration but not both at the same time along with limited driver assistance.

Level 2: This includes system that can control both steering and acceleration/deceleration with some driver assistance.

Level 3: This includes system that needs no human assistance when in autonomous mode. The vehicle can drive themselves but human intervention may be needed in some situations..

Level 4: This includes system that can drive most of the time with minimal human intervention in certain situations.

Level 5: This includes systems that are fully automated and can drive themselves at all times under all circumstances.

Companies involved in developing autonomous cars include Audi, Mercedes, Toyota, BMW, Ford, Honda, Google (Waymo), General Motors, Tesla, Uber, Volkswagen, Microsoft and Volvo. At CES 2018, VW-Nvidia showcased Xavier, a chip, that at level 3 will integrate AI with self-driving technology. Toyota along with MIT and Stanford is already trying to incorporate digital assistants. Ford is now testing Level 4 cars on public roads. Audi claims its next-generation A8 luxury sedan will be the first production car with SAE Level 3 autonomy. Recently Soft Bank Vision Fund announced investment of $2.25 billion in the General motors’ autonomous cars business which along with start up Cruise Automation are expected to produce level 5 car. Uber is now expanding its AI capabilities and plans to test NVDIA’s latest chips in Otto’s vehicles. It has also partnered with Volvo to create a self-driving fleet of cars and with Toyota to co-create a ride-sharing autonomous vehicle.

A quick history recap first

Man is a curious creature. The history of autonomous cars is as late as 19th century. It was first in 1925, Francis Houdina drove the radio-controlled car through the streets of Manhattan without anyone at the steering wheel. In 1969, John McCarthy in his essay Computer Controlled Cars wrote about something like self driving cars. In the early 1990s, Dean Pomerleau in the PhD thesis recited the utility of neural networks for taking images on road to aid a self-driving vehicle. In 1995, Pomerleau and fellow researcher Todd Jochem take their autonomous car on the road. In 2000 self parking systems started to emerge. Soon Toyoto’s Japanese Prius hybrid vehicle (2003, with automatic parallel parking assistance), Ford (2009, Active Park Assist), BMW (2010, parallel parking assistant) were launched. in 2009, Google with Sebastian Thrun began working on its self-driving car project (Wayamo). By 2013 General Motors, Tesla, Ford, Uber, Mercedes Benz, BMW all were found working on their own self-driving car technologies. In 2014 Google unveiled a prototype of 100% autonomous car. Nissan commits to a launch numerous driverless cars by the year 2020.

As one can see the history of autonomous cars is not as recent as many suggest. People have been trying to make their lives easier ever since they start talking.

Are autonomous cars safe?

The sad thing about autonomous cars is that people don’t trust them. This is despite the fact, overall scientists predict that autonomous cars will be many many times safer than human piloted devices. There have been accidents, which is understandable. These are cutting edge technologies and kinks can be seen. Still the industry is working as hard as possible to make these vehicles 100% safe before they hit the road in a huge way.

In Las Vegas, a self-driving car noticed a truck up ahead was backing up so it stopped and waited for it. However the autonomous car was not noticed by the truck driver. So while backing the truck collided with the car which didn’t budge from its place. In yet another incident near centre of Tempe a Honda CRV collided with an Uber autonomous car at the intersection. A human driven Uber car would have noticed the approaching car, could have slowed down and avoided the whole crash itself. For an autonomous car can only see the surroundings with its sensors and the programmed algorithm . Again in Florida a Tesla Model S in self- driving Autopilot mode collided with a wheel tractor trailer turning in its front since it failed to brake in time. Unfortunately the Tesla’s human occupant died. In the most recent case a Uber self-driving car noticed a pedestrian crossing the road but ignored it considering it as a false alarm. The pedestrian lost her life in this fatal mishap.

This shows the vast disruptive potential of this emerging technology. Self-driving cars don’t get tired, angry, frustrated or drunk however they cannot foresee every possible event or react to uncertain conditions as an attentive human driver can. But like numerous other things, innovation can help many. These futuristic vehicles will change the world, just as cars did before them!

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