Today (or yesterday when you read this), I was taking a walk outside Parliament and I had the opportunity to jump in a driverless car! More about that later but it made me think of how in just a few years, autonomous cars have gone from science fiction fantasy to reality or at least very nearly reality. However as with most other revolutionary technologies, driverless cars have been a long time in the making.
While the terms “self-driving” and “autonomous” are thrown around a lot, not all vehicles have the same capabilities. The SAE autonomy scale is used in the car industry to determine different levels of autonomous capability.
Level 0: No automation. The driver controls steering, and speed (both acceleration and deceleration) at all times, with no assistance at all. This includes systems that only provide warnings to the driver without taking any action.
Level 1: Limited driver assistance. This includes systems that can control steering and acceleration/deceleration under specific circumstances, but not both at the same time.
Level 2: Driver-assist systems that control both steering and acceleration/deceleration. These systems shift some of the workload away from the human driver, but still require that person to be attentive at all times.
Level 3: Vehicles that can drive themselves in certain situations, such as in traffic on divided highways. When in autonomous mode, human intervention is not needed. But a human driver must be ready to take over when the vehicle encounters a situation that exceeds its limits.
Level 4: Vehicles that can drive themselves most of the time, but may need a human driver to take over in certain situations.
Level 5: Fully autonomous. Level 5 vehicles can drive themselves at all times, under all circumstances. They have no need for manual controls.
It was all the way back in 1925 when the inventor Francis Houdina demonstrated a radio-controlled car, which he drove through the streets of Manhattan without anyone at the steering wheel. According to the New York Times, the radio-controlled vehicle can start its engine, shift gears, and sound its horn, “as if a phantom hand were at the wheel.”
In 1969, John McCarthy — a.k.a. one of the founding fathers of artificial intelligence — described something similar to the modern autonomous vehicle in an essay titled “Computer-Controlled Cars.” McCarthy refers to an “automatic chauffeur,” capable of navigating a public road via a “television camera input that uses the same visual input available to the human driver.”
John McCarthy theorised that users should be able to enter a destination using a keyboard, which would prompt the car to immediately drive them there. Additional commands allow users to change destination, stop at a rest room or restaurant, slow down, or speed up in the case of an emergency. Though he didn’t build any such vehicle, his essay laid out the plan for other researchers to work toward.
In 1995, Dean Pomerleau and fellow researcher Todd Jochem take their Navlab self-driving car system on the road. Their bare bones autonomous minibus (they have to control speed and braking) travels 2,797 miles coast-to-coast from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to San Diego, California in a journey the pair dubbes “No Hands Across America.”
Progress isn’t always a straight forward linear series of successes and nearly a decade later when the DARPA challenge kicked, none of the 15 competitors were able to complete the course. The “winning” entry made it less than eight miles in several hours, before catching fire.
Despite this setback and with autonomous vehicles still seeming some way off in the future, it was the Naughties that witnessed the realisation of driver assisted technologies begin to emerge such as self-parking systems demonstrating that sensors and autonomous road technologies are getting close to ready for real world scenarios.
Toyoto’s Japanese Prius hybrid vehicle offers automatic parallel parking assistance from 2003! Despite this technology being over 15 years old, I’ve never yet even been in such a car, let alone owned one!
2009 saw Google begin its development of its self-driving car project. Within a few years, Google announces that its autonomous cars have collectively driven 300,000 miles under computer control without one single accident occurring. In 2014, it reveals a prototype of a driverless car without any steering wheel, gas pedal or brake pedal, thereby being 100 percent autonomous. By the end of last year, more than 2 million miles had been driven by Google’s autonomous car and thus far there have only been the very occassional fatality resulting from a self-driving car of any brand.
By 2013, major automotive companies including General Motors, Ford, Mercedes Benz, BMW, and others are all working on their own self-driving car technologies. Nissan commits to a launch date by announcing that it will release several driverless cars by the year 2020.
Other cars, such as the 2014 Mercedes S-Class, add semi-autonomous features such as self steering, the ability to stay within lanes, accident avoidance, and more.
Audi claims its next-generation A8 car will be the first production car with SAE Level 3 autonomy. The A8’s Traffic Jam Pilot allows the car to drive itself without any human intervention, but only under certain conditions. The system only works in traffic at speeds up to 37 mph, in divided highways with clearly-marked entrance and exit lanes.
But Audi’s quest to free commuters from the drudgery of traffic jams faces more than just technological hurdles. It’s still unclear whether regulators in many nations will approve the use of the system in cars sold to the general public.
This is where my close encounter with a driverless car came in. Following on from being the first country where Amazon have been allowed to pilot the use of drones for delivery, Parliament has the intent of ensuring that driverless cars can legally drive on our roads from around 2020/2021.
It is often said that the roads of Britain prevent a unique and possibly toughest challenge to automated vehicles. Far away from the wide boulevards of California with easy to navigate city blocks and open highways, the roads of Britain are uniquely congested, ancient and irregular with all manor hazards that don’t appear in the USA, not to mention the narrow city streets with cyclists, mopeds, horses, dashing pedestrians, double-parking, segregated lanes, traffic calming measures and who knows what else.
For this reason the insurance company AXA were outside Parliament today with a driverless car to allow MPs to see exactly what it is they were legislating on. After a brief chat, the lovely Sophie invited me in before the flood of Parliamentarians got fully under way.
I must say it was surprisingly spacious inside and comfortable too. I don’t have any reservations at all about using them; driving in the London area is nothing but a stress and a bore.
Sadly like many other cars outside Parliament, this one was going anywhere but it was fun to be given a sneek peak of what the future might hold.