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Where is my Self Driving Car? | SignalWire

Where is my Self Driving Car?

As of July, 2019, you cannot buy a fully autonomous car. You can drive a semiautonomous car that has many of the same components but if you try to take your hands off of the steering wheel and let the car do all the work, you’re going to get arrested. We’ve been promised the possibility of self driving cars for 100 years…so why aren’t I driving one yet? In today’s blog we’re going to take a look at a few of the burning questions that we still have about autonomous vehicles.

How long have we been trying to build self driving cars?

Longer than you’d think.

When kids think about what the future will look like, self driving cars are a given. In fact we’ll probably have flying self driving cars. It turns out that we’ve been dreaming about this since the automobile was invented in 1885.

In 1925, the first remote controlled car was invented by Francis Houdina. At the time, it was incredibly impressive to see a car moving down the road with nobody in the driver’s seat. While that’s a great tourist attraction, it’s not technically a self driving car. In fact, a few too many people confused poor Francis with Harry Houdini…so they thought it was just a magic trick.

In 1939, the idea popped up again at the World’s Fair when Norman Bel Geddes presented his utopian vision of what future cities would look like, named “Futurama.” In this vision, the entire highway system was autonomous, not just the automobiles, and he predicted this would be a reality by 1960. General Motors actually built a prototype of this system in 1958 that included 400 feet of a highway fitted with electrical circuits beneath the pavement. The circuitry was used to gauge road conditions and to steer vehicles. The same concept was simultaneously being tested in the UK but also utilized a magnetic track underneath the road. Unfortunately, both smart road projects were abandoned due to lack of funding.

In 1977, the first stand-alone autonomous vehicle was prototyped in a lab in Japan. This car was controlled by a machine hooked up to different sensors and cameras, much like the self driving cars we’re seeing today.

By the 1990’s, different research universities like Carnegie Mellon started to push the idea further as they tinkered with a Chevrolet van, adding supercomputers, GPS, and cameras. Even the US military got involved by hosting a contest with a one million dollar prize to whichever team of engineers could build an autonomous vehicle.

In 2010, Google announced that they had been secretly working on a self driving car. Their goal was to launch a commercial autonomous vehicle by 2020. The prototypes logged over 1 million miles and hadn’t caused a single accident until 2016.

Uber, Microsoft, Tesla and other car manufacturers like Toyota, Volkswagon, BMW, General Motors, and Honda also joined the club. Progress was smooth until an Uber test vehicle hit and killed a pedestrian in March of 2018 which was the first self driving accident that did not involve a second vehicle. Uber has since stopped testing self-driving cars, and the public has become more skeptical of this autonomous vision.

When will we have self driving cars?

As of today, consumers are allowed to own semi autonomous cars that offer many features like adaptive cruise control, which automatically adjusts speed to maintain a constant distance between you and the car in front of you. Some cars beep at you when you cross over a lane line, automatic braking systems step in when you’re about to hit something, and if you’re fancy, your Tesla can even lane change for you. These are all great features that help keep us safe on the road…but when can we stop driving all together and just sit back and relax?

Like a lot of the futuristic tech we dream about, self driving cars won’t be around for awhile. We may be waiting several more years as car manufacturers admit that the project will be harder, more costly and slower than they originally thought.

Experts used to think that building autonomous vehicles would be an easy problem to solve; it would be a matter of adding sensors and some AI software and the job would be done. But after a few injuries involving Uber and Tesla prototypes, it became clear that this vision is more complicated than anticipated.

Researchers blame the delay on humans, saying that the erratic behavior of pedestrians, bikers, and other drivers is too unpredictable to navigate. If only everyone followed traffic laws…then we would could have nice things.

Ford and Volkswagen hope to make a ride sharing service with fully autonomous vehicles by 2021, but self driving cars that can take passengers anywhere will be seen much farther in the future. Goldman Sachs predicts that by 2030, 60% of cars will be fully autonomous, but the only way to know for sure is to wait and see.

Are self driving cars safer?

The most effective pitch for self driving cars is their ability to save lives. Globally, 3,287 people are fatally injured in a car accident every day and an additional 20-50 million are injured or disabled. If self driving cars could decrease that number by any amount, they would be worth the investment. According to Scientific American, over 90% of crashes are caused by human error, so if we could remove that human involvement, would that bring the numbers down?

Experts tell us that this is a difficult number to predict. In order to say for sure, we’d have to compare how many crashes each category avoids, and it is nearly impossible to gather data on what hasn’t happened.

Due to this lack of data, experts are split on their predictions. As we mentioned above, solving this problem isn’t as easy as a one for one swap: humans for AI. Automation would remove human impulsiveness, but some say that it would also remove the ability to predict what’s coming ahead as these cars make decisions moment to moment.

Others say that because autonomous vehicles take in information 360 degrees around, they will be much safer; the sensors can catch things our eyes simply can’t. Unlike humans, self driving vehicles follow every single traffic law which would prevent accidents caused by sporadic driving.

However, even if every single car on the road was autonomous, it still wouldn’t prevent pedestrians from acting unpredictably and teaching cars how to anticipate people walking in front of them is one of the hardest tasks engineers are currently facing.

So the final answer is: Maybe.

Would they eliminate traffic?

When it comes to driving, the most important issue to me personally is TRAFFIC! If one car hits the brake too hard they have effortlessly created a traffic jam. Human error is constantly responsible for hundreds of cars stopping to avoid absolutely nothing. If no humans are driving, will there still be traffic?

Sadly, the answer here is also a big “maybe.” An engineering professor who studies traffic flow at Virginia Tech, Hesham Rakha, says that most traffic is caused by delayed human reaction. If I break when I see a red tail light in front of me, the car behind me also needs to react and hit their brakes. Everyone behind them has to do the same and so on and so on; each car down the line breaking harder than the next until it creates a standstill.

Naturally, wouldn’t a self driving car prevent this nonsense? Automation would use real-time traffic data to anticipate what was up ahead and use that to slow down the car well ahead of time. The cars could even communicate with each other, warning the others about upcoming traffic issues.

Self parking features on autonomous cars could also prevent traffic. Humans driving around and around the same block searching for street parking doesn’t necessarily help congestion problems.

However, the impulsive behavior of human beings ruins the fantasy once again. Self driving cars can do everything right, but one human driver cutting a Tesla on autopilot off can still cause a traffic jam despite AI’s best efforts. Plus, even if humans follow every rule to a T, the least congested roads are going to attract the most cars and we’ll be right back to where we started.

Long story short, humans ruin everything.

Can I build my own self driving car?

YES! Kind of. The first Monday of ClueCon is our annual Hack-A-Thon, the Coder Games, where we host four different challenges of varying skill levels. The Maker Challenge is the event that allows you to tinker with Arduino boards and different sensors in order to build something cool.

This year, we are challenging everyone participating in the Maker Challenge to build their own fully autonomous cars. We provide everyone with a kit that includes wheels, an Arduino board, sensors, a code base, and more in order to get started. Then all you have to do is build the car! You can follow our example or you can make any modifications and adjustments you can think of in order to make your self driving car the best it can be. We’ll set up a track in the middle of the conference room and whoever gets past the finish line with the best time wins! You can learn more about the Maker Challenge as well as our other Coder Games events here.

Elon musk would be proud. Very proud.