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Autonomous Dreams: Self-Driving Cars Moving Forward

by Kirk Douglas

The conversation around transportation has changed so much in the last few years. As someone who doesn’t own a car and relies heavily on ride sharing services, public transit and sometimes even the dreaded taxi (yes, downtown San Diego will limit you to such atrocities at times), I am all too familiar with alternative methods of transport. As you may have noticed from prior posts, I am also no stranger to writing about some of the services mentioned. But few things in the automotive realm capture the attention of my tech-loving mind in the way that self-driving cars do.

I am by no means an automotive enthusiast. In fact, I grew up with a mechanic for a father. A mechanic who could hardly keep my interest on the topic long enough to walk me through a basic tire or oil change. Though I observed these services more times than I can count, the extent of my knowledge around cars ends there. It is basic to say the least. I never even learned how to drive manual transmission and could care less about what kind of car my peers drive, yet I find myself drooling over Tesla’s these days and wondering what exactly is going on in those Google cars.

I suppose a lot of that has to do with the flashy tech and lack of interaction. I find both aspects attractive and holding the potential key to sweeping changes in suburban and inner-city transportation. This change, led by driverless vehicles could be a perfect fit for someone like me. Though I enjoy the act of driving I am, like I assume most others, just ‘trying to get from point A to point B’ the majority of the time. The idea of doing just that, without any necessary interruption or human contact is exhilarating for me to consider. Of course, if it can be done safely and affordably.

I’ve read the headlines about the many cars that took over this year’s CES show floor (as detailed by The Guardian) and though I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing one up close I love reading the thoughts and observations coming off show floors.

The interest among the tech sphere seems ever-accelerating, fueled by companies like Ford, GE, Volkswagen, Google and Uber among others, all slowly expressing their interests in autonomous vehicles. Sometimes disclosing bold plans to tackle many aspects of autonomy and connected car configurations in addition to ride sharing initiatives (see Ford Motor Co. detail plains while in Barcelona, Spain at MWC)

The excitement is somewhat contained — I haven’t heard my family talk about it or inquire on my thoughts and most of what is floating around social media has been a result of who I follow and what I like. Still, the dreamer in me is very much intrigued and hopeful. I think about a future where a driverless car might pick me up for work while I throw my laptop on an in-car work bench to get some writing done. I wonder if a car might swoop me up in the next 5 to 10 years, complete with a bottle of champagne waiting for me as I am chauffeured sans-driver to a Friday night rendezvous on the other side of town to meet friends out for drinks.

Sure, I’m a dreamer. But so much of what we think of in transportation is ripe for change and I’m interested to see if my any of my aspirations as a passenger might come to fruition.

As you might have heard, one of Google’s driverless cars made news this month when it had an accident in Mountain View, CA on February 14.  The news marks the first time a driverless car was involved in a possibly avoidable accident. It also serves to solidify the ongoing conversation around driverless tech and the many questions it raises.

The accident happened when the Google car’s sensors had difficulty maneuvering around sand bags placed in the road. It edged out around traffic slowly, only to meet in a collision with a bus that failed to slow coming the opposite direction. Though the car was going only 2 miles per hour, its inability to predict the outside behavior placed the vehicle in a path for collision that could have just as easily been the mistake of a human driver. The Verge obtained the below description, detailed in full by the California DMV.

DMV Report

Google, in their usual self driving monthly report also detailed an account from their perspective to shed light on how the incident came to be. A highlighted excerpt from the report (below) describes how the collision happened:

Google_Report_Excerpt-Hilighted

 

Given the facts of this occurrence, it has been the general consensus of most news outlets and blogs that this was a fairly minor accident that could have just as easily happened at the hands of a human driver. The headlines may not bode well for the perception of Google’s self-driving initiatives as law makers have expressed mixed feelings about the technology, but most would agree this is merely a ‘bump in the road’ so to speak. It was a minor accident.

I think it is fair to say an accident like this was bound to happen at some point in time, given the variety of new technologies put to use in these vehicles and the margin for unavoidable human error outside of these cars. You could say that the predictability – or unpredictability of the bus driver was an environmental factor that current technology just isn’t refined enough quite yet to avoid.

A look at Google’s Self-Driving Car Project website reveals some fascinating information about the sensors the cars use and how they are assisted with both mapping technology and human programming to avoid incidents similar to this one.

Yeilding to Cyclist

One example shown in a video on the site, describes how the cars have been successfully programed to acknowledge bicyclers nearby using hand signals. As the host of the video describes, “…cars treat cyclists as a special kind of moving object.” She goes on to show how the cyclist in the video uses hand signals and changes his mind on several occasions about where he intends to go. The car yields to the cyclist, acknowledging the hand signals and eventually passes when the cyclist is in a position of safe passing.

Google goes on to illustrate the design and sensors among some of its cars, citing interiors intended for riding rather than driving and an exterior shape that is rounded at the top to accommodate sensors, as seen in the screen cap below.

Google Car Description

Google’s transparency on their desire to ‘take you where you want to go at the push of a button’ (as detailed on the site) makes it all the more attractive for me laid out in the informative simplicity of the site. When I heard about the accident I was more intrigued about the details on how it happened rather than the extent of it. I had a sort of gut feeling there probably wasn’t much to it and this time I was right.

With nearly 1.5 million miles driven since the start of their self-driving car project, it is highly likely that the worst of their non-human accidents have already happened outside of the public view. So long as testing continues safely in the public, as I believe is absolutely necessary, the technology should progress forward nicely with limited endangerment of others on the road. Hopefully with the public someday arriving at a time and place where a driverless car is a viable option available to us.

The fact of the matter is, the technology behind the bold idea of a car that might someday drive you is an entirely new concept, and therefore potentially scary. There are bound to be human-involved accidents moving forward but I remain optimistic on future progress. Like many other groundbreaking inventions of our past, it is often the most uncomfortable of things and seemingly far-fetched ideas that make the biggest impact further on down the line. What we see today, may not be part of the end technologies we may adapt to the world around us in the future.

In the most recent episode of The Dalrymple report, co-host Merlin Mann discusses the opportunities for self-driving cars to disrupt our fundamental notions of transportation with front-man Jim Dalrymple. He eloquently describes how we often miss the forest for the trees when it comes to our observations in budding technologies like this one. In his words:

“We always tend to look at one of these technological changes at a time, without thinking about how the future will change in ways we can’t expect and the ways that technologies will interact in ways we could never anticipate.” – Merlin Mann

Podcast

I think his assessment is spot-on. It is very easy in today’s world to see these prototype vehicles being limited in scope and capability. We might see them occasionally falter and that is only because they are not yet refined.

I can’t help but continue being a dreamer, an optimist and a passenger in hopes of better days and better transportation options. Autonomous vehicles are indicative of an automotive industry left largely unchanged, finally driving forward in ways that perhaps we can’t yet fully comprehend. I for one, am looking forward to our driverless future.

 

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