Science & Tech: Self-driving car

By Dr Michelle Dickinson

Self-drive is set to take on a whole new meaning, transforming our cities, unclogging our roads and changing our very idea of car ownership.
Passengers sit face-to-face in the self-driving Mercedes-Benz F 015 concept car shown off at the International CES in Las Vegas. Photo / AP
Passengers sit face-to-face in the self-driving Mercedes-Benz F 015 concept car shown off at the International CES in Las Vegas. Photo / AP

Imagine getting into your car to start your daily commute and a large screen pops out of your dashboard playing your favourite Netflix show while you sit back and enjoy a stress-free journey to work.

This is the plan from Volvo as it combines with the entertainment provider in its new self-driving car to redefine how we use our cars.

Self-driving cars are not some crazy futuristic technology: Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, Tesla and others already have cars on our roads with semi-autonomous driving features, including lane-keeping assist, automatic braking and intelligent parking.

This week, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that the crash rate for self-driving cars was2.0 crashes per million kilometres, much lower than the 2.6 accidents per million kilometres for people-driven cars. In New Zealand terms, that would mean 3000 fewer car-crash deaths and injuries per year, mostly because your driverless car can't drink alcohol, break the speed limit, or get distracted by text messaging.

Public opinion is starting to shift from us not wanting to share the road with robots to us not wanting to share the road with other human drivers.

Self-driving cars will also change the way we view car ownership, as we go from the most expensive thing we own sitting idle 96 per cent of the time just so it can be immediately available when we need it, to car-sharing providers providing vehicles on demand via a phone app.

According to a study by the University of Texas, car-sharing rather than owning could reduce the number of cars on our roads down to 30 per cent of what we have today. That would cut motorway delays by around 60 per cent and mean your child may never need to learn to drive. As well as sitting in less traffic, we could also reclaim back our land. Currently Auckland city has more than 50,000 car-parking spaces taking precious city space. With less car ownership and more car-sharing our cities would need fewer parking spots - giving us the freedom to transform where we live and work by opening up more space for parks, housing or public gardens.

So, how do they work? Let's take Google's self-driving vehicle, due to be on the road in 2019. It can drive from point A to B without needing any interaction from the driver.

Google's new self-driving prototype car. Photo / AP
Google's new self-driving prototype car. Photo / AP

A roof-top camera fitted with 64 lasers builds a 3D map of surrounding objects within 200m. A windscreen camera also scans for hazards such as pedestrians, cyclists or animals, while simultaneously reading road signs and observing traffic lights.

Software then interprets these hazards. For example, if the camera identifies a bicycle, the software knows that if the cyclist extends their arm, they are about to make a turn, so the car slows down to give the bike enough space to carry out their manoeuvre. Bumper-mounted radar keeps track of vehicles in front of and behind the car, a rear-mounted aerial receives geo-location information from GPS satellites and an ultrasonic sensor on the rear wheel monitors the car's movements.

Internal altimeters, gyroscopes and a tachometer finetune the vehicle's position. All of this data is interpreted by the software so you can arrive safely to your destination without needing to lift a finger.

With the Obama administration in the United States announcing efforts to boost self-driving cars this week, and the British Government placing no geographical limitations or special permits on testing self-driving vehicles, let's hope New Zealand sees its potential as a world-leading place to test this exciting new technology on our roads.

Dr Michelle Dickinson, also known as Nanogirl, is an Auckland University nanotechnologist who is passionate about getting Kiwis hooked on science. Tweet her your science questions @medickinson

- NZ Herald

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