Self-driving cars have become a popular subject of discussion these days, and for good reason: driverless cars might just bring about the biggest societal revolution since, well, the industrial revolution, and it appears that everyone’s getting in on it.
From rumors of the Apple self-driving car to real-world, driverless car applications from companies like Lyft and Uber, autonomous vehicles are poised to become a staple in our automotive industry in just a few short years.
What’s driving this interest in self-driving vehicles?
Driverless cars stand to solve all sorts of problems, like traffic delays and traffic collisions caused by driver error, but it doesn’t stop there: autonomous vehicles will bring to market all sorts of new and exciting applications for a variety of industries, like shipping, transportation, and emergency transportation.
There’s a lot to learn about driverless cars and how they will change the automotive landscape in the future, which is why we’ve put together this article that covers everything you need to know about how self-driving cars work and what benefits they could provide to us.
What is a Self-Driving Car?
Although current Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS) provide important safety functions such as pre-collision warnings, steering assistance, and automatic braking, self-driving vehicles take these technologies to the next level by completely removing the need for a driver.
As a matter of fact, there are “levels” to autonomy, which breaks down as follows:
Level 0: The automated system has no control over the vehicle, but may prompt the driver of hazards
Level 1: The driver and the automated system share control of the vehicle. Examples of this can be found in most cars equipped with ADAS
Level 2: The automated system is capable of taking full control of the vehicle; however, the driver must be ready to intervene if the system fails to recognize a potential hazard
Level 3: The Automated system takes full control of the vehicle and the passenger can safely take their attention away from driving tasks; however, they must still be able to intervene
Level 4: Driver can safely divert all attention away from driving tasks and let the automated system take full control. This functionality is currently limited to specific “geofenced” areas and other relatively controlled environments1
Level 5: No human intervention is required
While the prospect of a car driving itself around town might seem downright terrifying, we have to keep in mind that our world is already filled with numerous automated systems that make our lives easier, safer, and more enjoyable.
For example, Amazon, the largest and one of the most beloved online retailers in the U.S, currently utilizes more than 100,000 robotic systems in their
shipping operations, many of which are completely autonomous.2,3,4
It’s worth remembering that when automobiles first started rumbling down manure-clogged streets, people called them horseless carriages. The moniker made sense: Here were vehicles that did what carriages did, minus the hooves. By the time “car” caught on as a term, the invention had become something entirely new. Over a century, it reshaped how humanity moves and thus how (and where and with whom) humanity lives. This cycle has restarted, and the term “driverless car” will soon seem as anachronistic as “horseless carriage.” We don’t know how cars that don’t need human chauffeurs will mold society, but we can be sure a similar gear shift is on the way.
In modern autonomous vehicles, these technologies are used in conjunction with one another, as each one provides a layer of autonomy that helps make the entire system more reliable and robust.
For example, Tesla’s driverless car technology, known as “Autopilot”, uses eight cameras to provide 360-degree visibility, while twelve ultrasonic sensors and a front-facing radar work to analyze the vehicle’s surroundings for potential hazards.6
However, one key component still in development that will ultimately make autonomous cars more reliable is the implementation of 5G cellular networks.
Like the 4G LTE connections we’re accustomed to on our smartphones, 5G is a type of mobile broadband that allows for the wireless transfer of data from one device to another, only at a much, much faster rate.
How fast is 5G?
At peak throughput, 5G promises to be close to 1,000% faster than 4G LTE, which will make connection woes such as high latency and long response times a thing of the past.
Equipped on autonomous cars, 5G networks will allow for seamless communication from one car to another, but it doesn’t stop there.
We are fast approaching a world dominated by IoT devices, where everything, be it a motorized vehicle or a traffic light, will be connected to a high-speed network of some sort, enabling all sorts of new and exciting functionality.
Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V)
As mentioned, one of the key benefits of a fast, latency-free high-speed network is the ability for autonomous cars to communicate with one another.
This type of seamless communication will allow autonomous cars to exchange information about their current position, route, and hazards on the road.
For example, if two cars are traveling on a single lane highway and the car in front, through its onboard sensors, detects a hazardous road condition, that information can be relayed to the car behind so that it can begin braking and adjusting its route.
Additionally, with a whole network of interconnected vehicles, traffic congestion could be alleviated since vehicles will be able to make intelligent decisions about their current route to maintain a steady rate of vehicle flow.
Vehicle to Infrastructure (V2I)
Besides communicating with other vehicles, self-driving cars connected to a 5G network will also be able to communicate with different infrastructure elements that make up our roads and other transportation systems.
After a few years, the technology reached a point where no automaker could ignore it. Companies like Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Tesla, Mercedes, and the rest started pouring billions into their own R&D. The tech giants followed, as did an armada of startups: Hundreds of small companies are now rushing to offer improved radars, cameras, lidars, maps, data management systems, and more to the big fish. The race is on.
Once this information is received by the vehicle, that space can then be reserved for that specific car, and this reservation can be broadcasted over the cloud so that multiple driverless cars aren’t fighting for the same parking space.
Vehicle to Pedestrian (V2P)
While communication between vehicles and infrastructure is important, it’s even more important that the vehicles are acutely aware of pedestrians and their exact location.
In the U.S, motorized vehicles are responsible for the deaths of roughly 15 Americans each and every day, which is 15 too many.7
Autonomous cars may not be able to eliminate all of these incidents; however, it is quite likely that self-driving cars will be able to significantly reduce this number of deaths at some point in the future.
How does it work?
Most of us don’t leave home without our smartphones or some sort of internet ready device (e.g., smartwatch, tablet, e-reader, etc.), which means that in one form or another we are almost always connected to the internet.
Interestingly, many of these devices, like smartphones, have the ability to use GPS to determine the exact location of the person using the device.
With a 5G network, this information can be instantly relayed to an autonomous vehicle traveling nearby, making it aware of the pedestrian’s whereabouts at all times.
With this level of connectivity, driverless vehicles will be able to react dynamically to the position of a pedestrian with collision prevention measures like braking and automatic steering, which in turn should make our streets much safer to travel by foot.
Benefits of Self-Driving Cars
As discussed, there are some obvious benefits to self-driving cars, such as a reduction in traffic fatalities, traffic collisions, and traffic congestion; however, there are some other less obvious benefits that come with automation, some of which are listed below:
Reduction in Infrastructure Spending
In some parts of the United States, like Los Angeles, owning a car is practically a necessity. However, as the number of cars on the road increases due to population growth, the need for infrastructure upgrades grows with it.
Travel the freeways of SoCal, and you’re likely to see efforts to expand freeways at some point during your commute. This type of infrastructure spend aims to increase the capacity of our freeways, highways and streets so that they can accommodate more cars at one time; however, this process is circular, meaning that in just a few short years, as the population has grown again, additional upgrades will likely need to occur.
However, with self-driving cars and reduced traffic congestion, there will be less of a need for spending money on infrastructure upgrades, as the “traffic” will be able to manage itself.
Fuel consumption is a concern for many Americans, especially since the price of gas can vary greatly from year to year.
Additionally, the manner in which commuters drive can have a dramatic impact on their car’s MPG. For example, if you were to give 100 different commuters the same car rated at, say, 34 MPG on the highway, you’re likely to get a pretty mixed variety of average MPGs at the end of the test.
This variability can cause costly fluctuations in fuel spend for both businesses and private citizens; however, with driverless cars, the rate at which fuel is consumed can be more easily tracked, measured, and controlled, which should save system operators money over the long-term.
It must also be noted that many of the driverless cars coming to market are hybrid or completely electric, which will also add to the savings on fuel purchases.
Increase in Productivity
With traffic congestion a thing of the past and commuters needing to spend less time actively engaged behind the wheel, we’ll have more time to accomplish both personal and career goals.
For those of us who will still need to commute to work, our self-driving vehicle will allow us to read, sleep, and even workout while we are traveling.8
Additionally, less traffic congestion means that commuters won’t have to arrive at their jobs exhausted from long travel times, which should allow them to get more done at work.
Self-Driving Car Applications
Driverless cars are poised to shake up multiple industries around the world, including industries like shipping, public transportation, and emergency transportation.
Shipping & Deliveries
The shipping industry stands to gain a lot from driverless vehicles, especially since the vast majority of companies still rely on human labor to move product from one location to another.
Take for instance your standard shipping trailer that travels from state to state in the U.S: with driverless vehicles, these trailers won’t have to stop due to driver fatigue, hunger, the call of nature, or other human-centric concerns, which should reduce shipping times by a considerable amount.
Driverless vehicles offer the promise of increased options for public transportation, as nearly everyone’s autonomous car could be used for shuttling commuters from one location to the next.
For example, say you take your self-driving car to work, and instead of your vehicle simply sitting in a garage, it goes and starts shuttling other commuters within a predefined area for a fee.
With this level of driverless car integration in our transportation system, commuters have access to a near limitless number of commuting options at their disposal, and vehicle owners have access to a new stream of revenue.
Finally, the implementation of driverless vehicles will allow Americans to receive emergency medical care faster than ever before.
With traffic congestion reduced (or eliminated) from our streets, emergency vehicles will be able to reach their destinations much more quickly. Additionally, drivers who are having a medical emergency will be able to automatically adjust the course of their vehicle to the nearest E.R without having to worry about operating the vehicle.
What if the driver is unconscious and cannot make the manual adjustment?
In the future, it’s not impossible to imagine that our vehicles will be equipped with various technologies capable of monitoring the vitals of individual occupants, and if the car senses that there is a medical emergency, the vehicle can then make the decision to drive to the E.R while getting in touch with the facility and uploading its information to the medical staff.