Driverless cars of the future: How far away are we from autonomous cars?

Driverless cars used to be the sort of thing you’d see in sci-fi films – but in 2018 they’re becoming a reality. Autonomous car technology is already being developed by the likes of Lexus, BMW and Mercedes, and we’ve even tested Tesla’s driverless Autopilot system on UK roads. Across the Atlantic, Google is developing its automated technology in the wild, and Apple is rumoured to be working with BMW on its own – probably automated – car.

Fully-driverless tech is still at an advanced testing stage, but partially automated technology has been around for the last few years. Executive saloons like the BMW 7 Series feature automated parking, and can even be controlled remotely.

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Autonomous tech is also enjoying heavy investment around the world, especially in the UK. In 2015, the government announced new laws for testing driverless vehicles on our roads and, with them, an unprecedented £20 million investment into the technology.

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With so much investment and interest in driverless technology, it’s easy to assume that self-operating cars are imminent, but they’re much further away than we might think. Before our roads are flooded with driverless vehicles, manufacturers must tackle a range of technical and ethical challenges, and combat the biggest threat to autonomous technology: humans.

The Google Car

Autonomous vehicles rely on a range of sensors to interact with the world around them, with the Google Car prototype coming equipped with eight.

The most noticeable is the rotating roof-top LIDAR – a camera that uses an array of either 32 or 64 lasers to measure the distance between objects, building up a 3D map at a range of 200m and allowing the car to “see” hazards. The car also sports another set of “eyes”, a standard camera that points through the windscreen. This looks for nearby hazards like pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists, as well as reading road signs and detecting traffic lights. Speaking of other motorists, bumper-mounted radar, already used in intelligent cruise control, tracks other vehicles in front of and behind the car.

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Externally, the car has a rear-mounted aerial that receives geolocation information from GPS satellites, and an ultrasonic sensor on one of the rear wheels monitors the car’s movements. Internally, the car has altimeters, gyroscopes and a tachometer (a rev-counter) to give even finer measurements on the car’s position, all of which combine to give it the highly accurate data needed to operate safely.

Using these arrays, the Google Car can read the road like a human, but these sensors come with their own limitations. Autonomous cars simply replace the human eye with a camera, leaving them vulnerable to extreme sunlight, weather or even defective traffic lights. In current autonomous cars, the way this selection of pixels is analysed could be the difference between a safe journey and death.

Since Google unveiled its self-driving car, it has spun off this part of the business into a separate arm under the name Waymo. The name comes from Google’s mission to find “a new way forward in mobility.” 

Connected Cars

Many believe a connection between cars and traffic infrastructure is needed to combat this problem. “Car-to-car and car-to-infrastructure communication is essential for enabling autonomous driving,” says Christoph Reifenrath, senior manager in technology marketing of Harman’s infotainment division, who supply in-car tech to the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes.

“Car-to-infrastructure communication is essential for enabling autonomous driving.”

“For example, as your car approaches a red light, we’ll give you information. How can we provide this information in every car at every red light? There has to be a solution for that for if you want to enable autonomous driving in areas with traffic lights.”

The German automotive industry is one of the most powerful advocates of a connected car-traffic infrastructure. Earlier this year, manufacturers including Daimler, BMW and Audi paid $3.1 billion for the Nokia Here mapping service, which will be used as a platform for a connected-car environment. A joint statement released by the consortium reads:

“[Nokia] Here is laying the foundations for the next generation of mobility and location based services. For the automotive industry, this is the basis for new assistance systems and ultimately fully autonomous driving. Extremely precise digital maps will be used in combination with real-time vehicle data in order to increase road safety and to facilitate innovative new products and services.”

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To become a viable solution, these systems will be required in every vehicle, including those still used by humans. It’s likely that emergency vehicles like ambulances and police cars will continue to use human drivers, so they’ll need a method of communicating with the autonomous cars around them.

“You have to know where [an emergency vehicle] comes from and when it will be there, so the information is shared between this car and your car,” adds Reifenrath.

The human problem

Although autonomous cars will need better, more connected infrastructure to function effectively, they still face a larger, more unpredictable factor – us. Humans present problems for autonomous cars as both drivers and pedestrians, and dealing with our unpredictable behaviour represents a significant challenge for the technology.

“Humans present problems for autonomous cars as both drivers and pedestrians”

The Google Car is one of the most experienced autonomous vehicles, and its interaction with human drivers has exposed one of driverless cars’ main weaknesses. The first injury involving the Google Car wasn’t due to a fault in its system, but human-error.

Revealed by Google earlier in the summer, an incident in July was caused by a human driver’s failure to stop. While correctly waiting at traffic lights, Google’s self-driving car was hit by an inattentive driver and, despite its sophisticated array of sensors, there was little it could do to avoid the incident. Luckily, the accident only resulted in whiplash for a few of the passengers, but it’s a reminder that autonomous cars are at risk when surrounded by human road users.[gallery:4]

Google Car’s project leader Chris Urmson was one of the people involved in the accident, and his subsequent Medium post describes the event in detail. “The light was green, but traffic was backed up on the far side, so three cars, including ours, braked and came to a stop so as not to get stuck in the middle of the intersection,” he writes. “After we’d stopped, a car slammed into the back of us at 17mph – it didn’t brake at all.”

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Despite their sophisticated systems, self-driving cars currently have no plan B for human road users. Human drivers are able to interact with each other and make allowances, but also make countless, small mistakes when driving – mistakes to which current self-driving cars simply can’t adapt. Although there was little that could be done to avoid the Google Car’s latest accident, it’s a stark reminder of autonomous technology’s biggest hurdle.

Dealing with pedestrians

Despite human drivers representing a hazard for autonomous cars, the way they interact with pedestrians raises difficult moral and ethical questions for car manufacturers – with implications.

“If I walked out in front of a Google car travelling at 60mph, I have no real appreciation of how the vehicle will behave”

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Autonomous cars need to understand the way pedestrians behave, while also mimicking the behaviour they’d expect from a human driver. “Everyone has an appreciation of how a human being is going to react, because we are all human beings,” says computer ethics commentator Ben Byford. “So if you walk out in front of a car, and presumably the car driver knows you’re there, they’re going to react in a certain way.”

“If I walked out in front of a Google car travelling at 60mph, I have no real appreciation of how the vehicle will behave, so I’m effectively putting myself at a disadvantage.”

However, programming also comes with a risk. By making their behaviour predictable, autonomous cars could be vulnerable to manipulation by third-parties. Byford explains: “Say that the cars always react in the same way. That being the case, I could seriously injure people by walking out in front of a car on purpose, knowing that it wouldn’t be able to hit me.”

“I could seriously injure people by walking out in front of a car on purpose”

What’s more, with each car manufacturer racing to develop its own self-driving solution, the behaviour of autonomous cars is becoming more and more fragmented. If this problem isn’t tackled effectively, autonomous cars of the future will be dangerously temperamental to pedestrians.

“If all the major car manufacturers have a different version of this system, it’s going to make no sense whatsoever. And things can snowball into a catastrophe when people don’t understand how these things work” warns Byford. “If there were some sort of central ethic to every car applied, then at least you knew what the outcome of a certain action could be.”

Hacking

Autonomous cars will pack in a greater range of systems than ever, but the increased tech will also make them more vulnerable to hackers. Although it may seem an issue for the future, car-hacking is already happening.cherokee_car_hack

Fiat Chrysler had to recall 1.4 million Jeep Cherokees after it emerged they were vulnerable to hacking. Security experts Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek were able to wirelessly control functions like acceleration, windscreen and radio, rendering the driver powerless.

In an autonomous car – which relies entirely on computer systems – the effects could be devastating. It’s why laws put forward by the UK government insist that cars have “appropriate levels of security built into them to manage any risk of unauthorised access.”

Not technically hacking, but researchers discovered the sensors in self-driving cars can be easily confused simply by placing stickers on road signs. Worryingly, these road signs included stop signs. Autonomous cars could be tricked into ignoring stop signs, which, of course, would cause serious and potentially fatal consequences. 

The road ahead

As it stands, autonomous technology can be used for little more than parking or lane-changing. Connected car technology is essential for driverless tech and, until it’s here, it won’t be safe for human-operated and autonomous cars to co-exist. Until we upgrade our road infrastructure, driverless tech will rely on fallible sensor arrays – and still be at risk from unpredictable, human road users.[gallery:5]

However, the way driverless cars react to pedestrians is an even more critical issue, and one that will take extensive research and probably millions of pounds to get right. The current generation of self-driving AI is competent, but the moral judgement and behaviour of human drivers will be hard to replicate.

Until these problems are solved, fully autonomous cars will pose a dangerous risk to other road users. At the moment, driverless cars are only truly safe when tested and operated around other driverless cars in a controlled environment.

For the next few years, we’ll benefit from partial autonomous technology such as lane-changing systems, crash-avoidance and post-accident braking. However, fully autonomous technology is much further away, and will need to be isolated and tested in autonomous cities like the one constructed by the University of Michigan. It turns out even the worst drivers can’t be matched by computers, yet.

Visit our sister site Auto Express for everything you need to know about self-driving cars.

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