Across America, the autonomous vehicle trend continues to accelerate forward. Driverless cars are hitting the streets of California, and several other states are rolling out regulations about autonomous vehicle testing. Competition is fierce as automakers and tech companies race against the clock to create the perfect machine. But in March 2018, a self-driving vehicle operated by Uber hit and killed an Arizona pedestrian. The incident is thought to be the first pedestrian fatality within the autonomous vehicle space. Unfortunately, it’s a grim reminder that driverless tech is still in its early stages and there is much work left to be done.
However, some numbers paint a positive outlook for a self-driving future. One report claims that autonomous vehicles (AVs) could decrease accidents in the U.S. by a whopping 90%, saving thousands of lives and up to $190 billion annually. Recently, Esurance explored the ways in which data from today’s smart cars will help influence the development of tomorrow’s self-driving technology.
Once this tech proliferates throughout the mass markets, we should expect to see a decrease in the number of accidents. That is just a starting point to a much brighter and more efficient future, however. Along the way, it is important to understand how the next generation of AVs will interact with each other (and us) to keep drivers safe on the roads.
A quick overview of AVs
Autonomous vehicles need three things in order to function properly:
- An internal GPS system;
- A sensor system that recognizes complex road conditions; and
- A computing system that reads information from the previous two systems and transforms it into action.
AVs come equipped with all sorts of cutting-edge technology to help these systems work together — including cameras to see their surroundings, radar to allow for advanced sight (for example, to navigate through unfavorable weather conditions or in the dark) and laser sensors that can detect objects down to the millimeter. These features, along with incredibly powerful internal computers, are what get you from point A to point B in an AV.
How AVs communicate
Along with being aware of their surroundings, AVs must be able to “talk” with other vehicles. Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication helps cars share data with other nearby cars, including overall status and direction, such as their braking status, steering wheel position, speed, route (from GPS and navigation systems) and other information like lane changes. This tells neighboring vehicles what’s happening around them so that they can better anticipate hazards that even a careful driver or the best sensor system would miss. This data can also help an AV “see through” another car or obstruction by sending the same sensor data between vehicles. Soon, your car will be able to see over the vehicle in the left lane that is blocking your view as you try to turn right onto a busy street.
There’s also vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication, which allows cars to understand and connect with various road infrastructure. This includes traffic lights, lane markings, road signs, construction zones and school zones. Imagine if your car could alert you of a traffic jam or a sharp curve long before you came into contact with it — that will be a reality with V2I technology. In a fully autonomous world, these data sets will combine to help your car find the safest, most efficient route to your destination in real time.
V2V or V2I: An interim solution?
Although driverless vehicles could one day rule the roads, we’re still several years away from this reality. The technology isn’t quite there yet, and consumers are not completely ready to take their hands off of the wheel. However, car-to-car communication could provide a more real-time, positive effect on road safety. And government officials realize this — in 2017, the Federal Highway Administration announced V2V guidance that can improve mobility and safety by accelerating the launch of V2I communication systems. It’s certainly a step in the right direction for emerging technologies.
How self-driving cars can become a reality
A fully autonomous future isn’t out of the question, but it will require extensive collaboration from many different parties to see it through to fruition. Automakers and tech companies must build safe and reliable products that are virtually fail-proof before consumers can begin to trust the technology. City officials should consider smart road infrastructure to help vehicles better anticipate issues and communicate with each other. Local and federal policymakers need to create laws and regulations to protect our safety. Most importantly, these parties will need to gain the trust and confidence of the American public.
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