The driverless car is here
Technology being tested today will ensure that the cars in the future will drive themselves. What started off as tests and prototypes has now evolved into very serious technology that works.It will be safe and fuel- efficient. But will you really want driverless car? Rajiv Makhni asks...brunch Updated: Apr 14, 2012 19:30 IST
I finally find it. ‘Shivam Second Hand Super Cars’ turns out to be a dilapidated, rundown warehouse on the outskirts of town. A car salesman in a cheap polyester suit two sizes small for him approaches me while unsuccessfully trying to smoothen down the wrinkles on his shirt with a sweaty palm. I ask about the 2020 Red Roboto Car advertised and for a 10-year-old car, it turns out to be in a pretty good condition.
I ask about the number of lasers that the car is equipped with, whether the six infrared cameras on the front and back are all working, the number of pixels on the Heads Up windscreen and most importantly how well the first generation radars work. I sit in the rear seat and as the car starts to drive, I check for steering wheel encoder faults as well as how the two windshield mounted cameras are able to keep the car on a straight road. The car’s voice command system doesn’t work well, the Wireless Net connection modules aren’t as fast as I want them to be – but hey – it’s a 10-year-old car! I’m amused by just how antiquated the technology is, how risky these kind of cars were when they were first unleashed on the roads with very rudimentary safety features and how most of the sensors have delays in executing commands.
We strike a deal and Mr Polyester Crumpled Suit seems very pleased with my offer. Maybe I paid too much – but that’s okay – I truly love collecting first generation driverless cars and this one is a pure classic.
Not wild speculation any more
While all the above may sound like typical rambling when trying to paint a future scenario, it highlights an important detail. Technology being tested today will ensure that the cars in the future will drive themselves. What started off as tests and prototypes has now evolved into very serious technology that works. In the last few months, this category has improved by leaps and bounds and the world’s top car-makers as well as technology forerunners like Mercedes, BMW, GM, Ford, Continental Automotive, VW, Audi, Google, Stanford and dozens of serious contenders – are vying to become the first to unveil a driverless car. Most predict that the first of such cars will be commercially available in less than five years. And while it sounds like a dream come true, it’s not all good.
How it works
Let’s first understand how a driverless car will work. While each company has its own approach – the basic skeleton remains the same. The car will be equipped with a smorgasbord of sensors, radars, lasers, cameras and detection units – all of which together will make sure that the car gets information on everything around it. This will be relayed back to a central command unit within the car that will then give the other systems reactive commands. For instance, keeping to a designated lane with cameras, making the steering wheel automatically turn as the GPS unit tells the car that the destination is on the left, slowly braking as a red light approaches, differentiating between a piece of wood and a human baby on the road and a thousand other scenarios that play out on the roads everyday. The mind boggles to think how much information the human driver is able to process and control without batting an eyelid – and how many sensors are required to try and replicate that same complex control we all have built into us and never think about. When hardware and software take over the wheel, it may well go down as the greatest invention of the century.
A Dream Drive
Driverless cars may be the greatest boon ever for a country like ours. Imagine order and not chaos on the roads. Every car having built-in discipline, no desire to break rules, driving only in its own lane, no dimwitted macho driving, no overspeeding, none of the sensors on the car will ever get drunk and drive, no cars blocking free left turns, perfect utilisation of every inch of the road and no road rage. The skill of the person behind the wheel doesn’t matter, fewer accidents, better fuel consumption, better road usage, automated efficient parking and pure bliss! It is estimated that if no driver broke any rules, the number of cars on the roads could double and yet you would get to your destination in about half the time.
Breaking the connection
But like I said. It’s not all good. There are technical, legal and emotional issues that haven’t been solved. If a driverless car has an accident, who is responsible – the car manufacturer or you? What about insurance issues or a law being broken due to a car sensor malfunction? You’re going to feel very let down to be issued a ‘challan’ for something you didn’t do. Then there’s the emotional issue. Giving up control over your car is a huge decision. For many, the entire connect between you and the car comes from the driving itself. To give up on all of that – the sheer pleasure of driving – is a big one. To those who say you can
manually whenever you like, you’re missing the point. The perfect world of driverless cars can only work if ALL cars are driverless. A mix of human-driven, semi-robotic and pure driverless cars would make things much worse. It’s either all or nothing!
Thus the important question is – driverless cars are coming; but do you want one?
Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3. Follow Rajiv on Twitter at twitter.com/RajivMakhni
From HT Brunch, April 15
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First Published: Apr 14, 2012 19:00 IST