TODAY -

To drive or to be driven

Samarjit Kambam *



Self driving cars, sometimes called autonomous cars or robotic cars were essentially the stuff of science-fiction books and movies until relatively recently. Now they have become a reality. A self-driving car is a vehicle that uses a combination of sensors, cameras, radar and artificial intelligence to travel between destinations without a human operator. To qualify as fully autonomous, a vehicle must be able to navigate without human intervention to a predetermined destination over roads that have not been adapted for its use.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies power self-driving car systems. Developers of self-driving cars use vast amounts of data from image recognition systems, along with machine learning and neural networks, to build systems that can drive autonomously. The neural networks identify patterns in the data, which is fed to the machine learning algorithms. That data includes images from cameras on self-driving cars from which the neural network learns to identify as traffic lights, trees, curbs, pedestrians, street signs and other parts of any given driving environment.

The involvement of Google in developing the necessary software for the operation of these vehicles has increased public interest in the technology and practicality issues, as well as increasing investment. For example, Google's self-driving car project, called Waymo, uses a mix of sensors, Lidar (light detection and ranging a technology similar to radar), and cameras and combines all of the data those systems generate to identify everything around the vehicle and predict what those objects might do next, all happening in fractions of a second.

The system learns more as it drives, so maturity is important with these systems. In Waymo, the driver (or passenger) sets a destination. The car's software calculates a route.A rotating, roof-mounted Lidar sensor monitors a 60-meter range around the car and creates a dynamic 3D map of the car's current environment.A sensor on the rear monitors sideway movements to detect the car's position relative to the 3D map.

Radar systems in the front and rear bumpers calculate distances to obstacles. AI software in the car is connected to all the sensors and collects input from Google Street View and video cameras inside the car. The AI simulates human perceptual and decision-making processes and controls actions in driver-control systems such as steering and brakes. The car's software consults Google Maps for advance notice of things like landmarks and traffic signs and lights.An override function is available to allow a human to take control of the vehicle.

Automobile companies developing and/or testing autonomous cars include Audi, BMW, Ford, Google, General Motors, Tesla, Volkswagen and Volvo. Google's test involved a fleet of self-driving cars including Toyota Prii (Prius) and an Audi TT navigating over 140,000 miles of California streets and highways. In the USA, as of 2015, six states have allowed the testing of autonomous vehicles on their roads, they are: Florida, California, Michigan, Nevada Washington D.C. & Virginia.

In theory, if the roads were mostly occupied by autonomous cars, traffic would flow smoothly and there would be less traffic congestion. In cars that are fully automated, the occupants could do productive activities while commuting to work. People who aren't able to drive due to physical limitations and advanced age could find new independence through autonomous vehicles and would have the opportunity to work in fields that don't require driving.

Autonomous trucks have been tested in the U.S. and Europe to allow drivers to use autopilot over long distances, freeing the driver to rest or complete tasks and improving driver safety and fuel efficiency. This initiative, called truck platooning, is powered by adaptive cruise control (ACC), collision avoidance systems and vehicle-to-vehicle communications for cooperative adaptive cruise control (CACC).

The impression of autonomous vehicle technology could be that riding in a vehicle without a driver behind the steering wheel may be unnerving, at least at first. But as self-driving capabilities become commonplace, human drivers may become overly reliant on the autopilot technology and leave their safety in the hands of automation, even when they should act as backup drivers in case of software failures or mechanical issues. In one example from March 2018, Tesla's Model X SUV was on autopilot when it crashed into a highway lane divider.

When it comes to safety challenges, autonomous cars must learn to identify countless objects in the vehicle's path, from branches and litter to animals and people. Other challenges on the road are tunnels that interfere with Global Positioning Systems (GPS), construction projects that cause lane changes, or complex decisions, like where to stop to allow emergency vehicles to pass. The systems need to make instantaneous decisions on when to slow down, swerve or continue acceleration normally.

This is a continuing challenge for developers and there are reports of self-driving cars hesitating and swerving unnecessarily when objects are detected in or near the roadways. This problem was clear in a fatal accident in early 2018 which involved an autonomous car operated by Uber. The company reported that the vehicle's software identified a pedestrian but deemed it a false positive and failed to swerve to avoid hitting the pedestrian. This crash caused Toyota to temporarily cease its testing of self-driving cars on public roads even though it continues testing elsewhere.

With crashes also comes the question of liability and lawmakers have yet to define who is liable when an autonomous car is involved in an accident. There are also serious concerns that the software used to operate autonomous vehicles can be hackedin driverless cars even though automotive companies are working to address cybersecurity risks. The writer here is giving a brief speculation based on his opinion about driverless vehicles and its impact on humankind.

The impact of driverless vehicles will be profound and influentialin almost every spheres of our lives.The newly born or 1 years old kids of today may never have to learn to drive a car. I believe that the timeframe for significant adoption of this technology has shrunk in the past year as technology has gotten better and faster and the automotive industry has increased its level of interest and investment in this particular arena.

Software technology companies will own more of the world's economy as companies like Uber, Google and Amazon turn transportation into a pay-as-you-go service. Software will indeed eat this world. Over time, they'll own so much data about people, patterns, routes and obstacles that new entrants will have huge barriers to enter the market. Without government's intervention (or some sort of organised movement), there will be a tremendous transfer of wealth to a very small number of people who own the software and requisite infrastructure.

Cars will become like the routers that run the Internet. Vehicle designs will change radically . All vehicles may look different, come in very different shapes and sizes, maybe attach to each other in some situations. There will likely be many significant innovations in materials used for vehicle construction. The bodies will likely be primarily made of composites (like carbon fibre and fiberglass) and 3D printed.

There may even be designs with almost no moving parts other than wheels and motors, obviously. Traffic lights and signs may become obsolete. Vehicles may not even have headlights as infrared and radar take the place of the human light spectrum. The relationship between pedestrians and the vehicles will likely change dramatically. Exhilaration and emotion will almost entirely leave transportation.

People won't brag about how nice, fast, comfortable their cars are. Speed will be measured by times between end points, not acceleration, handling or top speed. People will know when they leave, when they'll get where they're going. There will be few excuses for being late. We will be able to leave later and cram more into a day. We'll also be able to better track kids, spouses, employees and so forth. We'll be able to know exactly when someone will arrive and when someone needs to leave to be somewhere at a particular time.

Advantages of Driverless Cars are manifold. Without the need for a driver, cars could become mini-leisure rooms. There would be more space and no need for everyone to face forwards. Entertainment technology such as video screens could be used to lighten long journeys without the concern of distracting the driver.Over 80% of car crashes in the world are caused by driver error. There would be no bad drivers and fewer mistakes on the roads, if all vehicles became driverless. Drunk and drugged drivers would also be a thing of the past.

Travellers would be able to journey overnight and sleep for the duration. Traffic could be coordinated more easily in urban areas to prevent long tailbacks at busy times. Commute times could be reduced drastically. Reduced or non-existent fatigue from driving, plus arguments over directions and navigation would be a thing of the past. Sensory technology could potentially perceive the environment better than human senses, seeing farther ahead, better in poor visibility, detecting smaller and more subtle obstacles, more reasons for less traffic accidents.

Speed limits could be increased to reflect the safer driving, shortening journey times.Parking the vehicle and difficult manoeuvring would be less stressful and require no special skills. The car could even just drop you off and then go and park itself.People who historically have difficulties with driving, such as disabled people and older citizens, as well as the very young, would be able to experience the mobility and freedom of car travel.

There would be no need for drivers' licenses or driving tests.Autonomous vehicles could bring about a massive reduction in insurance premiums for car owners. Self-aware cars would lead to a reduction in car theft. Unlike GPS chips that only tell them where someone is at the moment (and where they've been), autonomous vehicle systems will know where you're going in real-time.

The Driverless Cars, however, comes with a host of cons. Driverless cars would likely be out of the price range of most ordinary people when generally introduced, likely costing a fortune. Truck drivers and taxi drivers will lose their jobs as autonomous vehicles take over. A computer malfunction, even just a minor glitch, could cause worse crashes than anything that human error might bring about. If the car crashes, without a driver, whose fault will it be? Google, the software designer, or the owner of the vehicle?

The answer for that question still remains hovering in the air. The cars would rely on the collection of location and user information, creating major privacy concerns. Hackers getting into the vehicle's software and controlling or affecting its operation would be a major security worry. There are problems currently with autonomous vehicles operating in certain types of weather. Heavy rain interferes with roof-mounted laser sensors and snow can interfere with its cameras.

Reading human road signs is challenging for a robot.As drivers become more and more used to not driving, their proficiency and experience will diminish. Should they then need to drive under certain circumstances, there may be problems.The road system and infrastructure would likely need major upgrades for driverless vehicles to operate on them. Traffic and street lights, for instance, would likely all need altering.Self-driving cars would be great news for terrorists, as they could be loaded with explosives and used as moving bombs.

Ethical problems could arise which a machine might struggle to deal with. Faced with a choice between ploughing into a group of schoolchildren or going off a bridge and killing all its passengers, what should the vehicle do? Should the vehicle always swerve to avoid animals on the road or always prioritise the safety and comfort of the passengers? How would the police interact with driverless vehicles, especially in the case of accidents or crimes?

We'll have less privacy as interior cameras and usage logs will track when and where we go and have gone. Exterior cameras will also probably record surroundings, including people. This may have a positive impact on crime, but will open up many complex privacy issues and likely many lawsuits. Some people may find clever ways to game the system with physical and digital disguises and spoofing.

There will be some hardcore hold-outs who really like driving. But, over time, they'll become a less statistically relevant voting group as younger people, who've never driven, will outnumber them. In the near future, driving yourself may actually become illegal in some nations while others may continue to allow it for a long time.

India may well get driverless cars much later than more developed countries, according to most industry experts. This is not because of the car technology, but rather the challenges of India's chaotic roads. Over and above inadequate signage and badly maintained roads, drivers face a diversity of hazards, including auto-rickshaws, rickshaws, trucks, cycles, hard-carts, cows, elephants, camels, horses and stray dogs. The Indian government may also desire to protect the jobs of worker drivers in the near future, rather than see them be made unemployed by driverless vehicles.

The million dollar question is, "What about the people, the vehicle enthusiasts who want to drive vehicles on their on?" By that time, when driving becomes illegal, many will participate in vehicle racing (off road or race tarmac) secretly just like clandestine physical fights going on in many parts of the world which are considered illegal to replace their emotional connection to driving. Virtual racing experiences may grow more popular as fewer people will have the real experience of driving.

What a world we are going to live in!


* Samarjit Kambamwrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at kambamsamarjit0(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on 21 October, 2018 .


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