Self Driving Car Guide

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The Ultimate Guide to Self-Driving Cars in 2017

Self-driving cars?

It’s a concept that many people — including the media, academia and the general public — merely dreamt about years ago: a futuristic ‘sci-fi’ possibility limited to films, books, and TV shows.

But...are fully autonomous vehicles a real possibility in our lifetime?

Could self-driving vehicles soon take over the taxi, cargo, and vehicular-transportation business?

Well…yes, and no.

To some extent, the answer is: yes, self-driving cars are now an emergent & developing technology that is quickly becoming ever-more-reliable and intelligent in design & capability.  Many analysts consider self-driving cars to be the inevitable future of the automotive industry.

At the same time, engineering & ‘real-world implementation’ problems persistautonomous vehicles have been shown to exhibit inherent problems in street navigation, inclement weather, and in dealing with ‘anomalous’ events (i.e., human pedestrians, or errant objects unexpectedly entering a roadway, etc).

So, here we are, in the year 2017 — and what can we really ascertain about the real-world implementation of autonomous-vehicle technology? What can we expect in the near future? And — in the long run — how will self-driving cars affect rideshare companies, like Uber and Lyft?

What Is a Self-Driving Car?

A self-driving car is just that — ‘a car which operates on its own, without the need for a full-time human driver’.

Rigorous ‘controlled testing’ of self-driving cars is already underway & in full-swing. For instance, as reported by The Guardian, Volvo is currently looking for drivers who commute in west London — in order to start a large-scale, heavily-funded and carefully-controlled trial of Autonomous Vehicle Technology under real-world conditions. In many respects, Volvo’s test constitutes a major milestone in the self-driving car stakes.

The aim of Volvo’s ongoing test? To make self-driving cars as easy and simple to use as smartphones.

Volvo’s test will be known as the ‘Drive Me’ trial. Volvo’s autonomous vehicles have already been tested on public roads in Gothenburg, Sweden. Although engineers will be sitting behind the wheel (at least for now), ensuring pedestrian & vehicle safety (while also working out any tweaks and bugs), Volvo purportedly plans on actively selling an autonomous vehicle model in 2020/21.

For this semi-autonomous trial, Volvo’s cars will automatically drive themselves on both dual carriageways and motorways, allowing commuters to prepare for their day ahead without being actively ‘behind the wheel’ (i.e., they can read the newspaper or look at their smartphone while their automated car drives itself). Once drivers arrive in  central London (i.e., their vehicle exits a major highway) the car’s human driver will be prompted to take over, in order to navigate the city’s more-complicated streets.

Overall, these trials (which are now also being widely planned across a variety of the countries, most notably, the United States and China) have received mixed reactions.

Many autonomous-vehicle researchers are mostly interested in how other ‘human road users’ will react to autonomous vehicles. Others worry that autonomous vehicles will be inherently vulnerable to hacking, and focus on installing encrypted firewalls to better control acceleration, steering, and braking.

In the end, numerous problems exist…yet, enticingly…many advantages & structural benefits also accompany the debut of the self-driving car (or near-self-driving car), and for many people, the ‘future dream‘ of truly autonomous vehicles is simply too good to give up or ignore outright.

What Does Uber Think of Self-Driving Cars?

With trials still underway, unfortunately, you can be guaranteed to NOT be witnessing an imminent explosion of self-driving cars on the road year in the year 2017. With that being said, many companies are closing in on some form of full-functional autonomous transport— especially rideshare services (which view self-driving cars as crucial to their companies’ long-term economy viability).

Uber’s Bold San Francisco Experiment

Believe it or not, Uber has already had semi-autonomous vehicles on the road operating within California — albeit only for a brief period of time. Launching in San Francisco in late 2016 (notably, without a legal permit issued by state authorities) — the DMV immediately ordered Uber to take all autonomous vehicles off San Francisco’s roads. This order came after a widely-reported incident, in which one of Uber’s self-driving cars ran a red light — and was caught on camera doing so.

Although Uber blamed the car’s mishap on on human error — many drivers (and associated cities) are currently raising their concerns about rapid implementation (or even limited implementation) of self-driving car technology.

Of course, some of these concern are economically-based: drivers are worried that they’ll ultimately be replaced by self-driving vehicles — or, otherwise, ‘thrown under the bus’ if they’re employed as mere ‘backup drivers’  in a wider system of ‘mostly-autonomous vehicles’. They also worry that they may be legally responsible but ultimately helpless if an internal error occurs in their vehicle while ‘driving’ passengers (despite the vehicle being under the command of autonomous-vehicle technology).

Uber and Daimler Partnership

Another ‘bump in the road’ for Uber is their jettisoning of a larger plan for ‘in-house’ vehicle manufacturing (and a general shift away from the ambitious idea of producing an ‘exclusively-Uber-brand’ of self-driving cars).

In the meantime, Uber has announced a wide-ranging partnership with Daimler (one of the world’s top auto manufacturers).

Working together, Uber and Daimler intend to deploy a wide-ranging fleet of self-driving vehicles. Unlike Uber’s original collaboration (with Volvo, who provided dozens of vehicles outfitted with a hybrid of self-driving technologies & Uber’s navigational tech), Uber’s new self-driving cars will be owned and operated exclusively by Daimler — but used to pick up and drop off passengers using Uber’s global network.

Google, Apple & Tesla, Ford and General Motors: The Five Main Self-Driving Car Initiatives, Explained

As you’d expect, a variety of companies are moving closer & closer to fully-functional autonomous vehicle technology — some of it (reportedly) far more advanced than even Uber or Daimer’s autonomous-vehicle tech — including:

  • GOOGLE (‘Waymo’): In addition to other top-secret initiatives, Google’s public self-driving car program is called Waymo, and it features hybrid minivans outfitted with advanced navigational technology and street-analysis cameras. Waymo aims to deploy a substantial fleet of vehicles in states like Arizona and California by mid 2017.
  • APPLE: (‘Project Titan’ / ‘Apple Car’): In development since (at least) 2014, Apple’s ‘Project Titan’ was a wide-ranging autonomous vehicle project which initially began as a fully-blown car manufacturing initiative (i.e., Apple planned to build their own fleet of ‘Apple Cars’, from the bottom-up). During one period in 2015, it was even rumored that Apple participated in negotiations aimed towards purchasing Tesla (which would have seen the company acquire Tesla’s attendant self-driving vehicle technology), but the Apple-Tesla deal never ultimately materialized. Instead, Apple’s self-driving car project has evolved considerably over the last two years: it has also dropped the ambitious idea of in-house vehicle manufacturing, and more fully embraced the possibilities of developing proprietary autonomous-vehicle technology. After deals with a variety of car company deals fell through (i.e., like Uber, Apple tried to broker a similar deal to Daimler, but failed to secure a partnership, as well as rumored alliances with McLaren and BMW which never materialized), the future viability of Apple’s autonomous driving system remains unresolved. Reportedly, Apple’s top executives have given the company’s engineers until late 2017 to ‘prove that Apple’s self-driving technology works‘.
  • TESLA (‘Tesla Autopilot’ / ‘The Tesla Network’): Like Apple and Google, Tesla also has visions of a fully-autonomous future for its luxurious and well-reviewed brand of Tesla vehicles. After a deadly crash in 2016 (of which the company was ultimately cleared of responsibility in 2017), Tesla’s efforts at producing viable autonomous vehicle technology appear to be well-on-track. Tesla already has (useable) in-built vehicle technology, named Autopilot, which allows cars to navigate autonomously on highways and other areas. Eventually, the company plans to expand its self-driving initiative to include an ambitious program called ‘The Tesla Network‘, which would encompass a network of self-driving cars (and allegedly compete with Uber for dominance in the broader rideshare market).
  • FORD (‘Argo AI’):  In early 2017, Ford unveiled its intentions to invest considerably more resources in the self-driving car market. It announced a $1 billion investment in a company called Argo AI (an artificial intelligence and navigation-tech startup, whose founders have links to Uber and Google, which Ford believes will give it a ‘leg up’ in in the increasingly competitive autonomous vehicle world). With its $1 billion purchase, Ford instantly became Argo’s majority owner — however, parts of Argo’s management and engineering team will continue to function independently of Ford Motor Company. Simultaneously, Ford announced its intention to deliver fully-functional autonomous cars to the American market by the year 2021.
  • GM / GENERAL MOTORS (‘Cruise Automation / Chevy Bolt Autonomous Electric Vehicles’) General Motors (GM) has reportedly had a long-term interest in self-driving vehicles. In 2016, it announced (internally, to GM’s shareholders) that the company had already begun internal review of a fleet of autonomous Chevy Bolt cars in San Francisco and Arizona — which it had been undertaking in conjunction with Cruise Automation, an autonomous-vehicle company GM purchased for $1 billion in 2016. In addition, General Motors announced its intention to be first-to-market in the United States with a fully autonomous vehicle (while simultaneously announcing its plans to be the first major American automobile company with a self-driving car mass-assembly factory based in the United States). Notably, General Motors is a major investor in rideshare company Lyft, and many analysts anticipate that GM will attempt to help facilitate Lyft’s integration of autonomous-vehicle technology into Lyft’s overarching rideshare strategy.

Of course, there always exists the possibility that none of these companies eventually debut THE self-driving car that ‘dethrones’ all competitors and rules the market (i.e., the Model T of Self-Driving Vehicles).

Instead, some analysts expect that — at the end of the day, once the dust has settled —  Google, Uber, or Apple won’t actually be manufacturing self-driving vehicles at all. Rather, they’ll simply be programming them – leaving manufacturing to more experienced automakers and experienced mechanical engineers inside the traditional auto industry.

Or perhaps a new startup – an as-of-yet unknown automaker – will ultimately develop the first road-ready autonomous vehicle.

Some of the Problems Associated with Self-Driving Cars 

We all know that human drivers aren’t perfect — far from it, actually. Within the United States alone, more than 37,000 people die from vehicle-related accidents every single year. Worldwide, the number is even more astounding: approximately 1,350,000 people die in auto-related accidents every year, and somewhere between twenty to fifty million are disabled or non-fatally injured in vehicular incidents.

In this context alone, a safe, fully-functional self-driving car is (obviously) a highly appealing prospect — and perhaps a world-changing, life-saving technology which should be implemented sooner, rather than later.

But…as mentioned above, there are still some major kinks that need to be worked out when it comes to self-driving vehicle technology. Here are some of the existing tech’s main (and enduring) issues:

  • Bridges are a problematic & constitute an enduring obstacle for self-driving cars — Whether they’re passing over a small-scale bridge (or a larger one, like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco), self-driving vehicles often encounter navigational errors. Why does this happen? Why can’t advanced GPS simply guide an autonomous vehicle across a bridge? Well, it all comes down to a fairly simple (but obstinate) engineering issue: although GPS can show where a car is, bridges are often isolated structures — in other words, they lack tangible environmental cues, such as buildings, signs, and other cross-roads…making it incredibly challenging for autonomous cars to continuously position themselves (accurately) while crossing bridges. Uber’s engineering director (as well as engineers working at rival companies) admit that self-driving vehicles struggle tremendously with bridges — and that, at least currently, bridges constitute a ‘top-five’ obstacle for real-world implementation in the near term.
  • Changes in weather affect autonomous vehicles’  reliability — When there is either heavy snow or rain, the sensors and cameras which are equipped on self-driving vehicles struggle to ‘see’ accurately. This continues to be a major challenge — a big enough challenge that some analysts consider it the greatest obstacle in the path of fully-integrated autonomous vehicles. However, there are signs of improvement — some reports suggest that Google is making significant headway in implementing its advanced AI learning to overcome weather-realted obstacles.
  • Self-driving vehicles struggle without clear markings — On some highways (especially when markings are not clear) self-driving cars cannot distinguish easily between lanes — making it impossible for them to change lanes in a safe and reliable manner. This still constitutes a major problem for self-driving vehicles (across the board) — with perhaps only Tesla’s Autopilot system showing a rigorous & ever-increasing capability to function dynamically on unmarked roadways.
  • City-driving is challenging for self-driving cars — This is where Uber (and other companies, like Waymo, Ford and Tesla) struggle significantly — and where they are currently focusing most of their energies, funds and engineering skills. A large section of the now-embryonic self-driving car business will center around cities (at least, at first) — specifically, dense urban zones located within the United States and Europe. Complex GPS demands, as well as the increased likelihood of unexpected events; i.e., errant pedestrians; objects, road obstacles, etc…all play a key role in the puzzle of how to integrate self-driving cars into urban environments — safely and seamlessly

Self Driving Cars Are the Future…And They Might Stay That Way, At Least For A Few More Years

Regardless of how you approach the issue, there’s simply no denying that, in 2017, self-driving cars (and the emerging technologies which underpin their development) are now in full swing.

With some of the world’s largest global companies heavily invested in the success of autonomous vehicles (GM, Ford, Uber, etc) you can expect to see an expedited pace of development; an increasing rollout of new & exciting  technologies; and an ever-closer transition to a world full of semi or fully-autonomous vehicles (within a timeframe which just might outstrip expectation).

Nonetheless, it’s best to stay realistic, and slightly skeptical. The future is often a bit further away than it appears…

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