June 25, 2018
A Bright Future Ahead: Driverless Cars
By Vance Albitz

Ready for the future of transportation? 

The average American spends 18 hours a week – or 4.3 years of their life – in a car. The only thing we do more is sleep and work. Imagine if we were given an extra 18 extra hours a week; we most certainly would be better workers, friends, family members, and contributors to society.

So are driverless cars the future of transportation or just another tech fad? Turn on the TV or read the business section of the newspaper to see for yourself. Developments in the driverless car space seem to emerge every day. Every major car manufacturer, ride-sharing service and tech company appears to have some investment in the driverless car space.

What are driverless cars?
A driverless car is a car with artificial intelligence that operates on its own, without the intervention of a human. Simply put, a truly driverless car must be capable of:

1. Going to a destination
2. Avoiding obstacles
3. Parking without human help

To achieve this, a driverless car must have an artificial intelligence system that senses its surroundings, processes the visual data to determine how to avoid collisions, operate machinery such as the steering and brake, and use GPS to track the car’s current location and destination. In order to be driverless, a car must have an artificial intelligence.

To perceive visual surroundings, most self-driving cars have some combination of three visual systems: video cameras, radar and lidar. Most driverless cars require all three: visual cameras are used to interpret objects like street lights and stop signs, radar catches most obstacles instantly, and lidar spots the smaller items. Lidar sensors emit light waves in all directions; the light waves reflect off of objects and return to the sensor, measuring the distance between the car and an object. Bouncing to and from the sensor millions of times in a single second, the light waves create a constantly updated 3D map that will spot obstacles instantaneously.

What driverless cars are not…
Most people tend to use terms like “driverless,” “autonomous” and “self-driving” in an interchangeable manner. But, there are significant differences in the tech required for an “autonomous” vehicle that can only handle highways and a truly “driverless” or “self-driving” car that doesn’t need a human operator to navigate or park. Driverless cars need no human to drive, avoid obstacles, and park.

Why driverless cars?
For people with long drives to and from work, the answer is obvious: a chance to catch some sleep, get work done or relax instead of spending hours navigating through traffic.

From the car companies’ perspective, not having that tech available could make a brand look out of date. Most car brands are very concerned with their crash safety ratings and though crashes have occurred and made public headlines, most test runs point to a safer driverless future. If driverless car tech will truly reduce the rate of accidents, car companies will certainly continue to push this tech forward.

Ride-sharing services (Uber and Lyft) have an incentive to go driverless because they wouldn’t have to pay human drivers.

Where are driverless cars?
While self-driving car companies have convinced many state and national governments to let them test their driverless cars on public roads, nearly all governments strictly limit the cars from driving outside of testing tracks, with a few exceptions. In the United States, 33 states have created legislation to allow for limited self-driving tests, but only a few states and cities have allowed full use on public roads—and even then obviously have strict human oversight at all times. The exception to this rule is Phoenix, Arizona, where they are testing self-driving cars without safety drivers on the city’s streets – their website is currently taking applications for test riders. We may just be closer to driverless cars than you think.