Only five years ago, Google’s self-driving cars were totally experimental and could only be trialled on specially designed test areas. Then, back in May 2012, Nevada and California licensed them and with more US states expected to, can we finally see the rise of the self driving car here in the UK?
The first fully licensed self-driven car – which was a modified Toyota Prius – won a special permit back in May 2012, which allowed it to be used on US roads, including Nevada’s famous Las Vegas strip. But so far there are restrictions, despite Bruce Breslow, Director of Nevada’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), agreeing that autonomous vehicles are the “car of the future.” In a statement he said: ‘The state also has plans to eventually license autonomous vehicles owned by members of the public.’
Of course, any car that is seemingly not being driven by a human is bound to attract attention, and there is always the possibility that a computer failure could lead to a crash. Although in testing there has been no evidence that this is likely. In fact, they drive more safely than humans: “It gets honked at more often because it’s being safe,” said Breslow.
Self drive cars are actually designed as such that they perform well in busy situations, so perhaps when last summer, the governor of Nevada, Brian Sandoval, took the car for a spin in and around the state’s quiet capital city, he was not a seeing the car at its full potential. But drive around on Las Vegas’ Boulevard, where the casinos regularly spill out clients a little worse for wear, and starry eyed tourists are gazing at the spectacular displays, you are probably going to get a better idea of what the car is best suited to.
“They’re designed to avoid distracted driving,” Breslow said. “When you’re on the strip and there’s a huge truck with three scantily clad women on the side, the car only sees a box.”
Google’s self driving car does still need someone to sit in the drivers seat however, but the car will be able to operate, steer and navigate itself using the driverless technology developed by the Stanford professor and Google vice-president Sebastian Thrun.
Speaking to the Guardian in 2007, Thrun said it could transform part of our daily lives: “No one on Earth can tell me that commuting is fun. It is not recreational driving. It is driving because we have to drive. We could free up that time.”
He also thought that self-driving cars – whose brakes and accelerators are connected to computers, and which are fitted with GPS, a substantial database, artificial intelligence systems, and a laser radar (Lidar) which can detect obstacles such as people, cyclists and other cars on or around the road – could be substantially safer than human drivers. “If you go to a funeral of a person who died because another driver picked up a cellphone and didn’t pay attention, it is extremely hard to defend our right to drive where we like,” he said.
The self driving cars in Nevada currently have to sport a special license plate with an infinity sign to indicate that they are not necessarily being driven by a human. However, Nevada requires that there must already be two people in the car at all times – one behind the wheel, and another monitoring a computer screen showing the planned route and what it “sees” in terms of hazards and traffic lights ahead.
And there is always a safety feature built in in that in the event of a glitch, the human driver can override the computer with a tap on the footbrake or a hand on the steering wheel.
So far, Google’s self driving cars have already driven more than 200,000 miles without a driver. It is thought the idea of driverless cars came from projects inside the company after it took part in contests such as the Darpa Urban Challenge. A challenge was set to companies in which they had to build cars which could obey the rules of the road, avoid other cars driven by (human) stunt drivers, and evade obstacles. Thrun’s team won then, and has won the race now to get their cars on to the road.
Since then, Google’s self-driving cars have crossed the Golden Gate bridge and driven along the picturesque Pacific Coast highway.
“The vast majority of vehicle accidents are due to human error. Through the use of computers, sensors and other systems, an autonomous vehicle is capable of analysing the driving environment more quickly and operating the vehicle more safely,” a California state senator, Alex Padilla, said in March when he introduced that state’s autonomous car legislation.
Other car companies are also seeking self-driven car licenses in Nevada, the DMV said.
Source: The Guardian