Autonomous Cars (Part I) – An Electronic Chauffeur for All?
Today, with the work being undertaken on autonomous cars, it looks as though we may all soon have our own chauffeur to take us into town. On the test track, and to an increasing degree on the streets, electronic chauffeurs are in the making, promising stress-free, safe and convenient travel in private vehicles.
The technology behind this future is Artificial Intelligence, or AI, leveraging specifically advances in “deep learning”, a branch of AI enabling humans to teach computers highly complex tasks such as driving. By utilizing software algorithms that can interpret complex information, deep learning enables computers to learn in both supervised and unsupervised environments, in a manner not dissimilar to how people learn new skills. Companies such as Nvidia (known for the graphics chips in your computer or laptop) use deep learning and have actually taught a car to drive with impressive results.
Today, the newest cars in the market are fitted with relatively complex assistance systems. These allow a “hands off” driving experience under clearly defined conditions, such as the low-speed maneuvering of parking, or active support on the road, such as road sign recognition or lane departure assistance. Sometimes seen as gimmicks today, such features form much of the basis technology required for autonomous vehicles, bringing the necessary sensors (from ultrasound and cameras to radar) and electronic control (electric steering and braking) into the domain of the vehicle. All that is required is a central AI “brain” to link it altogether.
To date, no one has a working AI brain that can be proven to be safe under all driving conditions and in all countries, but the manufacturer delivering the most headlines in this area is Tesla. Not only have they demonstrated the viability of a purely electric powertrain, they have probably the most advanced autonomous driving system currently available in a production vehicle. So, while we can’t all have access to our own chauffeur today, calling upon our own autonomous vehicles to drive us in to town does seem like a viable option in the next decade or so.