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Driverless cars: The ins and outs

Self-driving cars could solve human errors, but how advanced is driverless technology? How it works

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Human error causes about 90% of car accidents that claim millions of lives and lead to tens of millions of injuries each year, a problem that driverless cars could solve. Autonomous cars are under development with many of the biggest car and tech brands competing for success. In a few short years, driverless cars have gone from a futuristic dream to an inevitable, and in some ways problematic, reality.

How do self-driving cars work?

A fully autonomous car uses built-in systems to analyze the car’s surroundings and automatically take the right driving action. It has to obey road rules, respond to unexpected situations and drive safely at all times. In other words, it has to perform better than the average human driver.

The exact technologies used in self-driving cars vary between manufacturers. The technologies are often guarded as secrets, but generally all self-driving cars have three key parts.

GPS

Today’s technology brings solid GPS technology, but there’s still room for improvement. All driverless cars need some form of GPS that lets you input where you want to go so the car can take you there. The technology isn’t much different from GPS phone apps, but having built-in GPS makes driverless cars more efficient than an app.

  • GPS helps driverless cars stay between the lines and on the correct side of the road.
  • Driverless cars have to decide between multiple options and choose the best route.

Detection technology

Most driverless cars use a combination of LIDAR (light detection used to measure distance), radar and cameras to see obstacles like guardrails, other cars, buildings, pedestrians, lane dividers, road markers and even street signs. LIDAR is sometimes known as light radar or laser scanning.

  • LIDAR involves sending invisible lasers in the surrounding area. The way the light bounces off the objects determines how far away the objects are and what kind of objects they are. Self-driving cars monitor all directions continuously to create a real-time map of the car’s surroundings.
  • LIDAR needs more work before fully self-driving cars can use it. It has a hard time monitoring in wet weather and snow, since these affect how light is reflected and can cover up road markings and street signs.
  • Radar can detect cars at a distance, even in poor visibility where LIDAR may fail. Newer vehicles with adaptive cruise control may use radar to detect cars in front of them and automatically adjust their speed.
  • Cameras and even audio features may be used in some driverless cars to check on the surroundings.

Onboard computers

Driverless cars need highly-advanced computers and a comprehensive electronic network, more so than other cars that have used onboard computers for decades.

These computers have to analyze a huge amount of information on the fly, like the current rotation speed and traction of each wheel, LIDAR and GPS information, engine heat and the constantly updating location of surrounding cars.

At the same time, the computer feeds this information through algorithms to determine whether it should take any action and whether other cars might change lanes or slow down.

  • The onboard computer can drive cars in ways that humans can’t. For example, antilock braking systems (ABS) can pump the brakes much faster than a person can, while traction and stability control take over individual wheels and control them independently of each other.
  • Driverless cars can identify a situation, assess it and take action in a fraction of a second.
  • The onboard computer is constantly evaluating the detection systems like LIDAR and radar. It’s always asking itself what the situation is and what to do about those conditions.

How safe are driverless cars?

Several companies like Google are programming their cars to not take any action like changing lanes, accelerating or braking unless there’s a 0% chance for an accident. Theoretically, this ensures perfect safety as long as the sensors and electronics work as intended and human drivers don’t do anything unpredictable.

However, this technology is new and the kinks are getting ironed out. Self-driving cars have caused several accidents, including six fatalities, but many of these have come down to driver error. The future of self-driving promises fewer accidents and safer roads, but we’re not quite there yet.

What self-driving car technology can you get now?

Fully autonomous vehicles aren’t on the roads yet, but you’ll find many assisted driving technology in today’s cars. Some might save you money by preventing accidents and lowering your insurance costs. These systems are the stepping stones to driverless tech, and are widely available in the US, especially for new cars.

    TechnologyWhat it doesExample carsAdvanced detailsCosts
    Adaptive cruise controlAdjusts your speed to match the car in frontHigh-end cars from most major manufacturers within the last two yearsEarlier versions require a lot of human input, but recent models can take over for extended timesAbout $2,000 extra, depending on the system
    Automatic parkingTakes over entirely and parks the carRecent models of the Ford Focus, Audi A6, Jeep Cherokee, sixth-generation BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz modelsWithin the last two years, cars can safely park themselves in most situationsAbout $1,000 extra
    Hands-off steeringSteers the car itself; the closest thing to a fully driverless carSpecific models of newer, higher-end cars like the Audi A7 and BMW 5 SeriesCars may drive themselves in good, clear conditions, but have difficulty in complex situations$3,000 to $6,000 extra, depending mostly on which other features it comes bundled with
    Automatic lane departure warningWarns if you drift over lanes and may steer you backMany different models and manufacturers include this featureIt depends on clearly visible lane markers, but new versions have more control than older onesStarts from $1,500 extra, depending on whether it’s a warning system or comes with automatic steering

    Car loans for driverless cars

    If you’re buying a car with financing, these autonomous features are worth considering for their value to your car and because they might lower your insurance costs.

    Some car loans might require you to take out a full-coverage car insurance policy. Because these policies cost more, discounts can help you save. Driver-assist technologies that demonstrably lead to safer driving, such as adaptive cruise control, are recognized by some insurers who may reduce your premiums if you buy them.

    How do Americans feel about self-driving cars?

    Americans aren’t quite ready for driverless cars. The feeling is more positive than in the past, but it’s still split. According to a 2017 Pew report about automation, 54% of those surveyed were worried about potential developments in driverless vehicle technology, while 40% were enthusiastic.

    Feelings are equally mixed about the benefits and downsides of self-driving cars. 39% of respondents feel driving will be safer with more self-driving cars on the road, but 30% think road safety will actually decrease. 75% of respondents felt that driverless cars will help seniors and disabled drivers be more independent. But 91% expect job losses for driving professions such as ridesharing, trucking and delivery services.

    So who’s actually willing to give it a try? 56% of respondents wouldn’t ride in a self-driving car, while 44% would. Those who would skip the ride cited a lack of trust in the technology and safety and a fear of not being in control.

    1 in 4 Americans say drivers should be liable for self-driving car accidents

    As it stands, the highest majority of Americans feel comfortable assuming the driver is responsible for any accidents involving a self-driving car. Of those surveyed, 38% say the most responsible party in a self-driving car accident is the driver, followed by those who say the manufacturer is to blame (26%) or the software company of the self-driving car (20%). The car seller, the local government, and the victim are responsible according to roughly 3% of those surveyed.

    Who should be liable when self-driving cars are involved in an accident?

    Selection% of Americans
    The driver38%
    The manufacturer26%
    The software/technology company20%
    The car seller4%
    The local government3%
    The victim3%
    Other2%

    Demographics breakdown by age, gender and location

    Women were more likely than men to blame the driver (40% of women vs 37% of men), the manufacturer (28% of women vs 24% of men), and the software/technology company (20% of women vs 18% of men). Men were more likely than women to blame the car seller (5% of men vs 3% of women), the victim (4% of men vs 1% of women), and the local government (5% of men vs 2% of women).

    Self-driving car liability by gender

    SelectionMenWomen
    The driver38%40%
    The manufacturer24%28%
    The software/technology company18%20%
    The car seller5%3%
    The victim4%1%
    The local government5%2%
    Other2%2%

    Older adults tended to blame the driver more for accidents involving self-driving cars, with roughly 41% of adults age 54 and older holding the driver liable compared to 31% of people aged 25 to 34. Younger adults tended to hold the car technology liable, with 25% of adults between the ages of 18 to 24 saying the software/technology company was the liable party, compared to 16% of adults over the age of 65.

    Self-driving car liability by generation

    Age groupThe driverThe manufacturerThe software/technology companyThe car sellerThe victimThe local governmentOther
    Ages 18–2433%25%25%5%4%2%2%
    Ages 25–3431%26%25%4%3%4%2%
    Ages 35–4441%29%16%3%2%3%2%
    Ages 45–5441%24%20%5%2%3%2%
    Ages 55–6441%26%14%4%3%5%2%
    Ages 65+41%30%16%2%2%1%4%

    Survey respondents living in the southern states would hold the manufacturer (40%), the software/technology company (20%) and the car seller (5%) liable, the highest percentages compared to other regions. Surprisingly, those in the West had the highest percentage of adults saying they would hold the victim (3%) liable. And the Northeast had the highest percentage of adults saying they would hold the manufacturer (30%) and the local government (6%) liable.

    Self-driving car liability by region

    SelectionNortheastMidwestSouthWest
    The driver35%37%39%38%
    The manufacturer30%26%24%28%
    The software/technology company19%20%20%18%
    The car seller3%4%5%3%
    The victim3%3%2%3%
    The local government6%3%3%3%
    Other1%2%3%3%

    What are the advantages of driverless cars?

    A number of positives have been speculated on as self-driving car tech develops.

    Safety

    The biggest and most obvious advantage of self-driving cars is safety. Autonomous vehicles outperform human drivers across the board. They have:

    • Faster reaction times. A human driver will usually be the slowest part of a car. Driverless vehicles can identify hazards and take action before a person even sees it.
    • Smarter decisions. In an emergency situation, you don’t have enough time to think things through. Driverless cars, however, do have enough time to analyse a situation and decide what the best move is.
    • Better drivers. Machines don’t get fatigued, distracted or drunk, which cuts out three big risk factors right away. They obey the speed limits, follow road rules and pay attention to warning signs. And it’s safe to assume they have no interest in road rage, tailgating or drag racing.

    Efficiency

    Another clear advantage is efficiency. By itself, an individual driverless car can be more efficient in almost every way, but having the roads full of autonomous vehicles would change everything.

    • Better fuel efficiency. Individually, a self-driving car can average better fuel efficiency thanks to being able to maintain more consistent speeds and brake and accelerate in an optimal way.
    • Consistent behavior. Driverless cars are more predictable, keep consistent speeds and can drive much closer to each other than people can, letting them reduce congestion.
    • Faster speeds. Autonomous cars can safely travel at much higher speeds than people can.
    • No more traffic jams. A driverless car network would allow for the optimization of traffic flow. For example, a highway lane for driverless cars only might look like an unbroken chain of vehicles, all driving at exactly 90 mph with only centimeters between each one.

    April 2016 saw a successful test of self-driving truck platoons. Six convoys of self-driving trucks left factories all around Europe and drove themselves to Holland.

    This test successfully demonstrated that driverless vehicles can adjust to different road rules when crossing national borders. It also showed efficiency gains. The trucks didn’t need to stop for food or rest, maintained consistent speeds across enormous distances and were able to improve energy efficiency by slipstreaming, or following another vehicle closely.

    More freedom for people with disabilities

    Driverless cars bring a whole new promise of freedom for those who are blind or otherwise unable to drive due to a disability, which is more important than it might seem.

    • Elderly drivers are enormously over-represented in car crash statistics, largely because reflexes simply get slower with age. They’re also more likely to be in a position where they have no choice but to drive, even if it’s unsafe. As the elderly population grows, this will become an increasingly serious issue. Self-driving car technology is both an effective and realistic solution to this problem.
    • Being able to live independently is important when adapting to a disability, but sometimes being physically unable to drive is an insurmountable obstacle. Driverless technology means a lot of people will suddenly be able to support themselves where they previously couldn’t and maintain a better level of independence.

    What are the disadvantages of driverless cars?

    Like most revolutionary technology, driverless vehicles will have a big economic impact that we’re largely unprepared for. One of the best ways to get an idea of what to expect is by looking at certain critical industries. Consider trucking, for example.

    Trucking will switch to driverless vehicles

    This is because driverless trucks will earn much more and cost less. Driverless trucks don’t need to take breaks, can travel a lot faster, use less fuel and are much safer.

    Any trucking company that doesn’t switch to driverless vehicles will be at a huge disadvantage next to its competitors, so most companies will likely be early adopters.

    • There are about 3.5 million truck drivers in the US. Almost all of them could be in danger of losing their jobs depending on how quickly it’s taken up in the US.
    • Gas stations, roadhouses and many other businesses depend on truckers for a regular flow of customers. Many of these will also go out of business.
    • Trucking is, by a large margin, one of the most dangerous jobs in America. A driverless fleet means trucking companies can save a huge amount on workers compensation and employer’s insurance.
    • Trucks are a crucial part of America’s business infrastructure and efficiency gains here will benefit most other industries. Despite the downsides, and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, the cost of not switching to driverless trucks could be even higher.

    This type of pattern will be seen across many areas. Driverless cars promise much more efficiency and cost-effectiveness than human drivers and any business that doesn’t make the switch will find itself at a competitive disadvantage. This means the mass uptake of driverless vehicles for business purposes could sweep across the world before they ever become similarly popular for personal use.

    Self-driving technology is expensive

    The technology packed into driverless vehicles doesn’t come cheap and bumps up the price of a car considerably. Manufacturers want a self-driving car that they can sell to a mass-market audience, and that means finding a way to lower the cost.

    Who’s responsible after a crash

    A lot of legal and legislative work still needs to be done before driverless cars are able to hit the roads en masse. For example, if two self-driving cars crash into each other, who’s at fault? Are you legally required to keep your eyes on the road while riding in a driverless car?

    Driverless cars also need to be programmed to make life or death decisions without human intervention. What if your car has no choice but to decide between killing you or a pedestrian? Driverless cars need to have programmed responses ready for such situations.

    Current roads present problems for self-driving technology

    Should driverless cars be designed for existing roads, or should roads be redesigned for driverless cars? Design changes might include placing sensors on lane dividers or creating special driverless car lanes. Whether these infrastructure adjustments are made determines what the future of driverless cars looks like.

    Human error is still a factor

    Having even one human driver among robots makes the road more dangerous. Simple human errors made while driving, such as jerking the steering wheel while sneezing, factors into the possibility of accidents between drivers and the driver-less.

      What will driverless car insurance look like?

      Newer model vehicles are often cheaper to insure than older ones. This is because spare parts are a lot easier to get and more widely available. Paying more for a newer vehicle with driver assist technology might save you money in the long run.

      No one is entirely sure what will happen to car insurance when fully autonomous cars hit the roads in large numbers, but it’s clear that it will need a lot of adjustments.

      • Who’s at fault? Ordinarily, car insurance companies will pay out if its customer is at fault, or will claim expenses from the other party’s insurance if its customer wasn’t at fault. This blame game is much harder with self-driving cars because the manufacturer might be more at fault than any of the vehicle occupants.
      • Who pays for insurance? If the manufacturer is to blame for any accidents in a self-driving car, insurance costs could be taken on by the manufacturer and built into the price of the car. This could drive up the initial price of the car or be built into monthly loan or lease payments. However, drivers may still choose to buy extra coverage, such as roadside assistance or comprehensive coverage, to protect from noncollision accidents.
      • How safe are driverless cars? Self-driving cars will be safer than manned vehicles, which could lower insurance premiums considerably. However, this will only happen when it has been proven beyond doubt that all driverless cars are generally safer. Difficulties in gathering good data and differences in the quality of driverless systems might delay this. Don’t expect reduced premiums for driverless vehicles until they’re relatively common and well established.
      • Will manufacturers get involved? There’s a good chance that car manufacturers will become much more closely involved with car insurance. In the transition period when fully driverless cars start flooding the market — it’s thought that this will happen between about 2021 and 2030 — manufacturers might start offering their own car insurance policies for specific vehicles to make up for the lack of good options elsewhere.
      • How will insurers determine car insurance costs? Car insurance will become more standard. Black box car insurance measures a driver’s safety with a black box device in the car, which is then used to determine their premiums. However, with driverless cars, these devices could become invaluable for insurers who need to determine the quality of self-driving systems and find out who was responsible for an accident.
      • What are drivers liable for? Insurers often cover themselves with the general requirements that you must pay attention while driving and obey all road rules. This will need to be amended in the age of driverless vehicles. If not, the occupant of a driverless car might be automatically liable for any accident simply because their hands weren’t on the steering wheel at the time, even though they didn’t need to be.

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