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Self-driving cars: Absolutely everything you need to know

Self-driving cars are the future – or so we are being told by companies currently working on them. But just what are autonomous cars all about, should we care and what are the potential implications? How soon can we get a lift home from the pub in a drunken state? We decided to find out.

What is a self-driving car?

The clue is in the name. A self-driving, or autonomous, car drives itself so you are free to catch up on Hollyoaks, play Destiny, make a phone call, brush your teeth – anything you can think of. 

How do self-driving cars work?

The specifics vary between manufacturers, but at a basic level autonomous cars use a series of cameras, lasers and sensors located around the vehicle to detect obstacles, while GPS systems help them travel along a preset route.

These high-tech gizmos and gadgets give the car a thorough picture of its surroundings, so it can see the layout of the road ahead, if a pedestrian steps out or if the car in front slows or comes to a halt.

Clever programming lets the computer know how to handle various situations. If a pedestrian jumps out, it’ll decide (hopefully) to come to halt. If it rains, it’ll put the wipers on – that kind of thing. They’re even smart enough to recognise more unusual occurences; in testing, a Google self-driving car stopped when it saw roadworks (technically this was more to do with confusion but still).

Can I get drunk and get my car to drive me home?

In theory, yes. But it all depends on what the government decides, as the argument is whether you need to be able to intervene if the self-driving car does something unpredictable. Lying utterly inebriated on the back seats, or simply having a snooze, will make that impossible. 

Are self-driving cars available now?

There are cars on the road that can perform a number of driving tasks without your help. Some feature driver assistance technologies like Lane Assist (which keeps you between the lines on a road), adaptive cruise control (which slows down and speeds up based on the speed of the car in front) and automatic emergency braking (which initiates an emergency stop to prevent collisions with pedestrians.

Cars that drive completely on their own are few and far between. Google has been working on one that has been trialled in the US, while car manufacturers like Audi, BMW and Volvo have been working on their own versions.

Audi, for instance, has managed to make an RS5 drive around a track at breakneck speeds and even up the Pike’s Peak hill climb – a notoriously dangerous track that tests human drivers to the limit. Admittedly it was much slower to finish than a trained human might be, but impressive nonetheless.

Driverless car demonstrations all share one thing in common, a controlled environment. Manufacturers are obviously keen to show off their cars in a positive light where a mistake on the part of a computer is much less likely, which is a problem we will get to in just a tick.

Of course, accidents still happen. We’re looking at you, Volvo.

Are self-driving cars legal?

Google’s driverless car required a driving test to make it legal in the US state of Nevada. Audi became the first car manufacturer to receive a permit for testing autonomous vehicles in California, where driverless cars can now do their thing so long as manual controls are fitted and a human comes along for the ride.

The UK has also given driverless car testing the go-ahead. In fact, the government wants the UK to be a world-leader in the field, and will likely amend the Highway Code to accommodate autonomous vehicle use.

How much have they been tested?

Over many years and for millions of miles in Google’s case. But many aspects of self-driving are already being tested on a daily basis by you, the consumer. The adaptive Cruise Control and City Stop features on your Mercedes, for example, are very similar to the systems found on fully-fledged self-driving cars, so manufacturers are confident these systems work in isolation – even if they haven’t given production cars the ability to use them all at once without driver input. 

Why are self-driving cars said to be the answer?

Because as brilliant as your brain is, it has a many limitations. A computer can react almost instantly to a hazard, whereas you take precious milliseconds – and that’s assuming you’re even paying attention in the first place – and aren’t affected by adverse weather and visibility conditions.

Moreover, autonomous cars can ‘see’  a lot more than we can. In Google’s car, the LIDAR system on the roof (located there so as to offer an unimpeded view around the car) acts like a really advanced version of the Microsoft Kinect motion sensing camera, reading the surroundings up to 1.3 million times a second.

Autonomous cars can see around corners (if they’re networked they always know where other vehicles may be), over blind crests and have 360 degrees of vision. Computers also don’t get angry, fall asleep at the wheel, spill their coffee, get put off by whining kids in the back or drink alcohol. 

Are there other benefits?

Self-driving cars could bunch together to safely increase the amount of traffic you can fit on roads, reducing congestion. This in turn would have a positive effect on emissions, as cars will spend less time waiting around, burning fuel unnecessarily.

There are also the aforementioned safety benefits of a machine that can do its thing all day, every day without getting tired, so trucks never need to stop while the driver has a rest. Talk about improved productivity.

It removes the likelihood of human stupidity, too, which is said to be the culprit in 90 per cent of road accidents in the UK. Elderly people, meanwhile, would be able to get around regardless of their health, removing the isolation associated with giving up driving for good.

Car sharing is another potential benefit as the GPS location systems could be used to work out where there are multiple people planning the same journey.

So what are the negatives?

Self-driving cars have the potential to be safer, in theory. But unlike the autopilot on a plane, which only has to steer through the clouds and avoid other planes, an autonomous car has an insane number of variables to watch and react to.

Machine learning is getting there, as is software, but autonomous cars aren’t infallible. Computers crash, GPS systems lose reception, software is hacked – we could go on. 

The brain is an incredibly complex computer itself that processes huge amounts of data it sees, hears, feels and thinks while you go from A to B. It may react more slowly, but it can compute complicated events better than any machine, and emotional decisions are impossible for microchips.

Would a machine know, for instance, when a traffic light is out of action or how to get out of the way of an emergency vehicle? What if a mum and child step out in the road – can and should a computer decide whether to try and save the former or latter if that’s the only choice?

What else is holding back self-driving cars?

Legislation, lesislation, legislation. Governments need to decide things like who is at fault in the event of a crash involving self-driving cars, what a passenger can or can’t do while being driven and whether at least one occupant has to be ready to take over in case something goes wrong.

Money is another issue. Self-driving cars will cost more due to the additional hardware, software and research that has gone into developing the systems. Governments, meanwhile, will need to spend money testing the cars for approval, mapping companies will need to go back and get much more accurate mapping data, and insurance companies will have to decide who (or what) is liable in the event of an accident.

Let’s not forget human behaviour, which the UK government says is the biggest barrier to overcome. Making a person trust a machine with their life will take time. Plus some people just love to drive for fun.

When can I buy a self-driving car?

Elon Musk believes it will be eight years before you can buy a fully autonomous car. Other manufacturers are more optimistic, but don’t expect their arrival any time soon.

Will self-driving cars be expensive?

It’s hard to say. Cars with self-driving technology tend to be more expensive models such as the Mercedes S-Class, but things like adaptive cruise control can be specced on a mid-range model for reasonable money. But this is a world apart from having all of the clever sensors needed for full autonomy. 

A rough indication is the Tesla Model S, which can now be specced with Autopilot. It costs an extra £3,600, which seems good value considering it means you can let the car do just about everything.  

Can I make my existing car autonomous?

Not yet, but we know of at least two companies working on a kit anyone could buy. The first comes from Oxford University and is called RobotCar UK. At the moment the complete system costs £5,000, but its makers believe it could become as low as £150 in the future, opening it up to the masses. RobotCar UK works by learning your journeys before eventually taking over.

Another company is working on a self-driving kit specifically for Audi. American start-up Cruise will turn an Audi A4 or S4 into one that can drive itself. The catch is that it only works in California and you need US$10,000 to join the Founder’s Club before you can own the Cruise RP-1 system. Or you can reserve a kit for US$1,000 if you are happy waiting for the second batch.

Are self-driving cars really the future, then?

The World Health Organisation estimates there are 1.2million fatalities around the world every year so the reward is there if self-driving cars can reduce that number, not to mention reduce insurance claims.

Teething problems experienced during the transition might make or break the technologies. A crash early on, for instance, could ruin the trust between humans and computers.

We get the impression there’s a long way to go, with the gap between helping the driver with autopilot-esque features and completely taking over a sizable one. Years at the very least, in our estimations.

Self-driving cars could prove highly beneficial, but for now they are of more use to manufacturers as marketing tools than anything else. Watch this space.

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