Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Automated Driving Getting Closer To a Reality

The EN-V electric self-driving pod car from GM

I'm not exactly a fan of utopian visions, and when leading engineers in the field of autonomous driving say it's feasible to create an environment where vehicles would spot each other and their surrounding objects accurately enough to drive around them, my first reaction, oddly, is to cringe.  Giving up control of my car? To "Hal"?  Iiiiii dunno.

But proponents of autonomous driving promise that the technology will not only give us less to worry about in our daily lives, but will save lives as well.  Charles J. Murray, Senior Technical Editor for Design News, recently covered the latest advancements in the effort to achieve such a reality.  He quotes developers who claim it is possible to save the 30 to 40,000 fatalities recorded each year due to vehicle accidents by achieving a zero-fatality expectation as we do for airliners.

Specifically, sensor manufacturers will play a key role in this. Existing GPS technology works well to plan out routes, but for vehicle systems to know more, the information is received too slow (y'know, cuz its coming from orbiting satellites?) to be able to update multiple changes to the environment going on all around it (traffic, pedestrians, etc).  This is where two kinds of sensors come into play: accelerometers and gyroscopes.  Changes in direction and speed are recorded by the sensors and paired with the GPS to give a wealth of information about driving conditions for the vehicle to navigate.

But on top of that, the data has to be sifted through and put together properly.  In addition to sensor tech, processors have to be fitted to compare the inertial data with the GPS and paint the picture for the vehicle to figure out how to self-navigate.  Gyroscopes, sensors, data processors; the automobile has all of a sudden become a playground for 21st century software companies, not to mention an opportunity to carve out a sector that can produce stable, longstanding jobs in the future.

Manufacturers, auto brands, government, everyone is going at a snail's pace to make sure these changes are gradually phased into existing infrastructure.   Nevertheless, the ball is already rolling.  General Motors recently introduced Chevy's En-V 2.0 prototype at Beijing's Auto Show this year, an electric self-driving vehicle clearly designed for urban settings.  Alex Padilla-D from Los Angeles  introduced a bill that would encourage Google, who already have multiple autonomous vehicles driving on their company property, as well as other companies to further develop the technology with the intent of introducing it to low-traffic urban settings in the near future.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.