I'm sure you're well aware that there's been a bit of buzz in the air surrounding these 'self-driving cars', but what's actually happening? There's so many questions left unanswered; who's making them, how good are they, and, most importantly, when can we get our hands on one?
Well, it's probably best to start off with Google, who claim they're 'building a prototype vehicle that's designed to take you where you want to go at the push of a button—no driving required.' The car uses Google Maps to detect where in the world it is, and sensors that help show blockages and obstructions in the road. The car is also fitted with a software that can detect the difference between a cyclist and a pedestrian and also predict what there next movements will be.
This all sounds perfect in an ideal world, but it's not all been smooth sailing for Google, who claim to have 'self-driven over 1 million miles'. They have been reporting some of the problems it's car is facing, including driving in the rain, a pretty normal part of day-to-day driving for most people. The rain that hit California over the winter gave Google the perfect opportunity to test their cars in the stormy conditions.
Unfortunately the car didn't cope too well, with the rain affecting the cameras and lasers. As the laser sensors could detect the rain, the car had to learn to detect objects such as cyclists and pedestrians through the raindrops and exhaust on cold days. Google were forced to develop a sort-of windscreen wiper for the dome of the sensor. Although this may seem like a solution to the problem, Google were forced to reveal that their cars "automatically pull over and wait until conditions improve" unless the driver takes over.
However, Google say they are working on developing the car even further, and are pushing the car to "all sorts of rainy and snowy conditions" until the self-driving car is fully complete! No news yet, however, about when these will become commercially available.
Now, moving on to a big competitor in the motoring industry. Looking more like an actual car (compared to the likes of Google) Ford have announced they're pushing the testing for their autonomous vehicles forward. They plan to add 20 Fusion Hybrid vehicles this year, meaning they will have a fleet of 30 cars being tested on the road around Michigan, Arizona and California.
The vehicles claim to have small solid state sensors that can detect a range of 200m and search for trees, pedestrians, cyclists and animals. Ford also say they have included their latest virtual driver software, which is basically the brain that controls the vehicle's systems.
Ford have also claimed they're the first company to test their self-driving roads in the snow. This is huge news as snow can be the biggest hurdle for autonomous cars to overcome, with the snow and slush blocking the road markings, and obstructing the sensors on the cars; Ford are calling this project 'snowtonomy'.
Ford is using light sensitive radar which sends short pulses of laser light to allow the car to figure out what's around it by creating a high-definition 3D image, allowing it to determine the safest driving path. The cars have also been loaded with 3D maps, which tell the car about road markings, landmarks and signs, so that when the vehicle can't see the ground, it detects it's surroundings to figure out where exactly in the world it is.
However, no one is entirely sure when we're going to be able to purchase our own self-driving Ford, with a company representative reported as saying, “We haven’t given a timeframe yet, but when we do it we want to make sure that it’s intuitive and right for the market. But, more importantly, that it’s accessible to millions of folks and not just those who buy luxury vehicles.” So it looks like everyone can get their hands on one!
So we've had Google and Ford so far, but what about Mercedes? They showed their new E-Class at the Detroit Auto Show and it could be the most advanced car the company has produced to date, with a wide range of innovative safety features and a massive amount of updated self-driving tech. However Mercedes don't just want the cars to drive themselves, they want them to protect, including a braking system that can help avoid accidents and even gadgets that can protect your hearing in crashes.
But it's the interior that really impresses. Mercedes have included a 12.3in screen and a touch and swipe function on the steering wheel, meaning it should be a hell of a lot easier to control.
Mercedes have also made it clear they want to move from crash safety to crash prevention. The E-Class uses the newest generation of Drive Pilot, a piece of semi-autonomous technology that claims to be able to follow traffic at speeds up to an incredible 130mph. When there are no road markings for the sensors to detect, the tech uses the vehicles around it to control the car, however when using this, the E-Class can travel no faster than 81mph. This all sounds pretty amazing but there is a catch; Drive Pilot requires that the driver's hands need to be on the wheel every 60 seconds.
Although Mercedes installed all this to prevent crashes, things do, sometimes, go wrong. When this occurs, the Pre-Safe Sound kicks in. Pre-Safe Sound is a piece of technology that emits a high frequency noise just before impact. This noise essentially closes up the ear to stop permanent damage, so when the ears hear the sound of the crash, they are already protected against the loud sound.
There's not much to be said for Volvo's autonomous vehicles, as their video below explains everything perfectly. It's well known that Volvo are known for their safety, and nothing reinforces that more than their new "Vision 2020" statement. This vision is that by the year 2020, no one will be killed in a Volvo vehicle. The main way Volvo are pushing Vision 2020 is through their self-driving vehicles.
”We’re bringing 100 cars to be driven on normal roads with fully autonomous drive capabilities. [This] is a very important step for us to bring this into normal roads [and] normal customers, where we also take the liability aspects [of] full autonomous driving [into account], which was earlier communicated during Q4 2015,” as claimed by Klas Bendrik, Volvos group CIO.
Although Tesla don't claim to be making fully autonomous vehicles, they have created something that's changed the game entirely by introducing Summon. Aptly named, Summon is a piece of software you can download to your phone to, well, summon your Tesla.
At the moment, Summon can bring your car out of the garage, and park it back at the end of the day. Tesla also claim that the tech also "eliminates the burden of having to squeeze in and out of tight parking spots". This doesn't sound like much yet, however Tesla do say they have big plans for Summon; CEO Elon Musk claims that within 2 years, you will be able to Summon your Tesla from anywhere, and that “you’ll be able to summon your car from across the country.”
This is massive step in autonomous driving, as it means that self-driving cars will be able to drive themselves with no assisting from their drivers. That is, if Tesla actually manage to achieve this with Summon. Guess we'll have to wait and see.
So, there you have it. Nothing concrete yet, in the world of self-driving cars. You won't be able to nap on your half hour commute to work, or eat your breakfast at the steering wheel, but maybe in 10 or 15 years, we'll be able to do just that.