Driverless vehicles might seem like something out of a science-fiction film, but there are already over 30 million on the roads, as of 2022.
While Avis has no self-driving vehicles in its rental fleet today, this could well be a different story in a few years time. So how do self-driving cars work?
To navigate the roads, driverless vehicles use an ingenious combination of high-tech hardware and artificial intelligence software. Together, this system allows the car to process information about its environment, then to start, stop, slow down, speed up and manoeuvre as necessary.
They’re not as complicated as you might think. Our self-driving cars guide will talk you through any questions you might have about this innovative technology.
To navigate the roads, driverless vehicles use an ingenious combination of high-tech hardware and artificial intelligence software. Together, this system allows the car to process information about its environment, then to start, stop, slow down, speed up, and manoeuvre as necessary.
We'll look into autonomous vehicles' use of of cameras, LIDAR, radar and computer chips below.
The camera system is perhaps the most important element of self-driving car technology. Several different high-resolution cameras are placed at key positions around the vehicle, providing full visibility of its surroundings.
Lidar is a type of sensing system that bounces light waves off surfaces, generating a highly detailed 3D map of a particular space. You might have spotted these little sensors spinning around on top of driverless cars.
Radar technology is usually incorporated into a driverless car. Though it might lack the fine resolution of LIDAR or cameras, it’s ideally suited to detecting particular features of the environment. It works using radio waves, which means that it stays effective in tricky conditions like snow or rain.
Many other types of sensing equipment are used as part of the self-driving car’s hardware. These include GPS (Global Positioning System) trackers, ultra-sonic sensors, and inertial sensors that can get internal feedback on the car’s motion.
After the sensors provide the car with all the information that it needs about its environment, it’s the on-board computer chips that allow it to make the appropriate driving decisions. Internal processors take in the external data and run complicated AI algorithms on it, often making use of advanced machine learning techniques to improve their accuracy and efficiency. This is then used to operate the mechanical parts of the car – the brakes, transmission, steering, headlights etc.
Public and private funding is promoting the development of driverless technology, as it is believed that removing the driver from the driving process could have a number of significant advantages for both individuals and society in general. But what are the main benefits of self-driving cars?
A key benefit that many have identified in self-driving cars is the removal of human error. According to official data, over 1 million people die in car accidents each year, and a further 50 million road users are injured globally. Reports suggest that as many as 93% of these preventable casualties are caused by fatigue, risk-taking, lack of concentration, and everyday mistakes made by one or more drivers. With driverless cars, these issues would be entirely eradicated, and road use would be made a lot safer for passengers and pedestrians.
For many people, driving a car is one of the great joys of life. But even for passionate motorists, it’s not always the most convenient thing to do. Self-driving technology offers all the benefits of a car, without the stress of sitting in heavy traffic or navigating busy roads. It can also allow non-motorists to get from A to B much more easily. The elderly and people with disabilities would see a huge improvement in their quality of life, no longer relying on others to help them get around. There are also clear benefits of self-driving cars in everyday situations, and emergencies big or small – someone could safely hop in their driverless vehicle if they were intoxicated, take someone to the hospital if they were injured and incapable of driving, or just use one to send a few forgotten belongings to work, school, or the airport.
With cars that drive themselves, there would no longer be a requirement that every vehicle has at least one person who knows how to drive. That would make ride-sharing much easier, as anyone could just get into a driverless car when necessary. More carpooling means fewer vehicles on the road and less traffic. Self-driving tech also means that cars circulate more efficiently, with more consistent speeds and less hesitation. The benefits of reduced congestion are clear – reduced CO2 emissions, less noise pollution, safer roads, more liveable urban environments.
As interest in driverless cars has increased over the past decade or so, many people have drawn attention to the safety issues involved with a fully-autonomous vehicle. What happens if something goes wrong? Can we trust automated technology to take control over such a crucial, and potentially lethal everyday activity? The ethics of self-driving cars is another issue.
Many critics suggested that a computer algorithm designed by a car manufacturer’s software engineers wouldn’t value human life in the same way as a regular driver would. Could additional dangers result from this reduced sensitivity and awareness? Even passionate advocates of the technology are being forced to tackle the all-important question: “are self-driving cars safe?”.
The short answer is that they probably are as safe as we need them to be. As we stated above, the vast majority of deaths and injuries on the road are caused by driver error, and self-driving cars would eliminate this factor almost entirely. But it’s important to keep ethical issues in mind at all times and to stay vigilant and responsible as driverless technology increases in popularity.