Your car may soon be driving itself

Spencer Kaufman, Contributing Writer

Over 1.2 million people die each year on roads around the world, and 94% of those accidents are due to human error.  The goal of self-driving cars is to address this problem.  If humans are no longer in control behind the wheel, this death toll would decrease significantly.   Autonomous vehicles are the future of transportation and are already piloting throughout the United States, and while removing human error from the equation is a major goal, many concerns still exist.

“What happens if the computer system shuts down?  I worry about my safety,” said junior Hudson Aarons.

However, a machine is never distracted, never gets tired, and doesn’t have human blindspots.  A self-driving car uses sensors placed around the vehicle to view its surroundings., relying on  computer vision and machine learning (advanced artificial intelligence) to help the car get to its destination.  

There are a range of approaches that have been taken in order to develop autonomous vehicles.  One key company working on this technology is Waymo, owned by Google’s parent company.  Waymo has an autonomous ride-hailing service, similar to Uber, operating in Phoenix and San Francisco.

“Especially during COVID-19, it would be a lot safer to call up a self-driving car without worrying about who is driving it and who they’ve been exposed to,” said junior Adam Donowitz.

People in Waymo service areas can call acar and have it safely drive them.  Waymo is currently focused on expanding its service areas and building partnerships with automakers, emphasizing they are focused on technology and not one specific vehicle.

“We aspire to drive anything that moves on public roads — buses, trucks, cars, whatever,” said John Krafcik, Waymo CEO, in an interview with the Financial Times.

Waymo’s goal is to build a complete platform for all vehicles to become autonomous,

not only cars.

“Self-driving cars have the potential to really improve people’s lives and make people

more productive.  It saves time because we won’t have to spend time parking.  Also, it allows

us to focus on other things during the time you would normally be at the wheel,” said junior

Guy Eliaz.

Another key autonomous technology developer is Zoox, a subsidiary of Amazon, which is building cars with autonomous technology built-in.  The cars are two-directional and have no steering wheels.  Zoox obtained a permit to drive its vehicles on Las Vegas roads in early 2019 and just recently received a permit for California roads in late 2020, without any backup driver.  The company also recently announced an electric vehicle and its plans for an autonomous taxi fleet.

While Waymo and Zoox both rely on Lidar sensors to see, Tesla has opted out of this and relies on a suite of cameras and ultrasonic sensors to see the car’s surroundings.

“Anyone who relies on Lidar is doomed,” said Tesla CEO Elon Musk at Tesla’s Autonomy Day.

Tesla’s cars aren’t built specifically to be self-driving, but a self-driving package is available for an additional ten thousand dollars when purchasing a Tesla car.  Current Tesla self-driving features include a variety of options for the computer to operate the car, and more are coming out later this year.

There are various approaches to autonomous driving, so it will be a while before we see the most efficient ones.  In the long-term, these vehicles will have the ability to change the way people travel and improve safety on the roads.