With all the high tech gizmos and gadgets added to cars every year; GPS, electronic ignition, automatic stability control, etc., it might cause some of us to wonder if our cars are smarter than we are. The short answer is not yet, but they’re working on it.
Granted, we haven’t quite reached the point where you can hop into a robocar, like the taxi in Total Recall, tell it your destination, and then sit back and enjoy a nice nap or lose yourself in the newest ebook while the car’s AI does all the work, but scientists and engineers are
constantly upgrading and adding to the computer controlled systems in our
family vehicles. That day may come sooner than you think.
The average car already has more computing power than the Apollo rockets. It isn’t just a single computer. It’s more like 20 or 30, controlling almost every aspect of the car’s operations, from how much fuel to inject when you step on the gas to the safest way to stop when you hit the brakes. Engine temperature, fuel efficiency, traction control, exhaust, even the radio and air conditioning are optimized by computers to improve the car’s performance. Driving is rapidly being transformed from a tedious chore to the ultimate mobile app.
It’s not that the car is smarter than you, but it is better at many of the tasks that are critically important for driving. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people are killed every year in auto accidents, and we’re usually the cause. Humans are the weakest link. According to some estimates, 93% of all accidents are caused by driver error. It’s not that we’re incompetent, most of us any way. It’s that we’re distracted. We talk on the cell phone, text, eat, put on make-up all while trying to drive. Instead of giving our full attention to the road and its hazards, we’re worrying about picking up our kids or what to say in that big meeting. On top of that, we tend to do stupid things like speed or get behind the wheel after having a few drinks or when we’re sleepy.
Computers never have to worry about any of that. They never get tired or hungry or distracted or drunk. They don’t even blink. Their reaction time is also incredibly faster. In order to react to something, like a stopped car or a child dashing into the street, a message has to travel from our eyes to our brain. There it gets processed and a response gets sent to the muscles in our hands and feet. All of these messages travel across our nerves at about 200 mph. That sounds pretty fast until you compare it to a computer, whose messages are literally transmitted at the speed of light.
The Defense Advanced Research Administration (DARPA), the folks who brought you the internet, put the concept of autonomous cars to the test. In 2004, they sponsored the Grand Challenge for driverless cars. The contestants had to design and build a car that could drive itself through a rugged 150 mile course in the Mojave desert. The prize was $1 million. 21 teams qualified. None of them managed to cross the finish line. Undeterred, a second Grand Challenge was held in 2005. This time 5 cars completed the course. The team from Stanford University and their modified Volkswagon diesel Touareg named Stanley took home the prize money.
Having shown that a car could navigate through a desert course, the DARPA folks decided to push the envelope a little farther in 2007 by sponsoring an Urban Challenge. Contestants’ cars had to navigate a 60 mile course set up at the now-closed George Air Force Base in Southern California. Along the way, they had to contend with obstacles including other cars, merge into traffic and complete the course in less than 6 hours. The winner was a Chevy Tahoe named Boss, built by Tartan Racing. Stanford University and their Volkswagen Passat named Junior had to settle for 2nd place.
With the success of the DARPA competitions, several car makers, including Toyota, BMW and Volkswagen have unveiled autonomous prototypes capable of navigating, staying in lanes, merging into highway traffic and even parallel parking without the aid of a human driver.
Google is getting in on the action too. In May of 2012, the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles approved Google’s application to test an autonomous car on Nevada roads. They stipulated that the car must carry a $1 million bond and have two people in the car at all times, including one behind the wheel who can take control in an emergency, but it’s a start. So, while we’re not quite at the point where everyone has an autonomous automobile yet, that’s the direction we’re headed. Once more around the park HAL.