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Driverless cars explained: everything you need to know about the futuristic tech

Driverless cars are our transportation future, and closer than you may think. 

Almost every major car manufacturer, ride-sharing service and tech company has bought into the driverless car industry. And if you take press releases at face value, we’re only a couple years away from a utopian society where your car can steer and park itself and accidents become a rarity. 

But as recent fatal accidents involving self-driving cars have shown, the technology that cars use to spot pedestrians and avoid collisions still has lots of maturing to do. 

What is lidar?

Lidar sensors emit light waves in all directions; the light waves reflect off of objects and return to the sensor, measuring the distance between car and object. 

Bouncing to and from the sensor millions of times in a single second, the light waves create an instant, constantly updating 3D map that will spot obstacles instantaneously.

With more and more companies apply for licenses to test driverless cars on public roads, we’re breaking down how companies like Google, Uber, Tesla and others train their cars’ artificial intelligences to see the road—and which AIs might have a blind spot. 

We’ve gathered the latest details on which countries allow public driverless car testing, which companies are developing the smartest AI models, and what the future of the driverless car industry could bring in the next few years. 

What is a driverless car?

Simply put, a truly driverless car must be capable of navigating to a destination, avoiding obstacles, and parking without any human intervention.

To accomplish this, a driverless car must have an artificial intelligence system that senses its surroundings, processes the visual data to determine how to avoid collisions, operates car machinery like the steering and brake, and uses GPS to track the car’s current location and destination. Without an AI, cars cannot be truly driverless. 

Is this what our driverless car future looks like?

Is this what our driverless car future looks like?

Companies like Google’s Waymo put have put its AI inside virtual cars and have the vehicles ‘drive’ billions of virtual miles, throwing every perceivable obstacle at the cars to see how they respond. 

The AI learns what actions lead to crashes, and slowly learns how it should drive on real roads.

Waymo's visualization of what a driverless car 'sees' on the road

Waymo’s visualization of what a driverless car ‘sees’ on the road

(Image: © Waymo)

To perceive the visual surroundings, most self-driving cars have some combination of three visual systems: video cameras, radar and lidar. 

The AI synthesizes the data from these different systems to fully map out its surroundings and watch out for unexpected obstacles. 

Most driverless cars require all three: AIs require visual cameras and deep learning software to interpret objects like street lights and stop signs, and while radar catches most obstacles instantly, it’s not as good as spotting smaller obstacles as lidar. 

Still, some vehicles with autonomous capabilities like Tesla’s Model 3 don’t use lidar; Elon Musk famously called it an overly-expensive “crutch”, and that cameras and radar should suffice. 

One thing to consider: the Model 3 along with pretty much every other “self-driving car” currently out there, aren’t truly “driverless”. 

Most people tend to use terms like “driverless”, “autonomous” and “self-driving” as interchangeable. 

But there are significant differences in the tech required for an “autonomous” AI that can only handle highways and a truly “driverless” or “self-driving” car that doesn’t even need a steering wheel or human operator to park or navigate. 

Tesla's autonomous (but not driverless) Autopilot feature

Tesla’s autonomous (but not driverless) Autopilot feature

Some car companies tend to fog the issue by claiming their cruise control tech for driving straight and avoiding obstacles is “self-driving”. 

Mercedez-Benz actually had to pull ads that claimed its 2017 E-Class was a “vehicle that could drive itself.” 

But until AI tech is sophisticated enough to drive somewhere like a school crossing without any danger to pedestrians, governments won’t allow cars to drive without a human behind the wheel.

Why should this matter to you? Because some drivers are feeling safe enough to leave the driver’s seat while their car’s in motion, putting pedestrians (and themselves) at risk. It’s vitally important that the autonomous vs driverless distinction become more clear to the public. 

So, while we’re covering autonomous cars in this piece, don’t mistake them for being “driverless”; most of them have at least a few years before their AIs can properly navigate the world without a human crutch. 

Why driverless cars?

For commuters, the answer is obvious: a chance to catch some extra shut-eye, get work done or watch Netflix instead of spending hours navigating through traffic. But why have companies invested an estimated $80 billion and years of work into this technology?

For starters, it could simply be a case of jumping on the bandwagon. Pretty much every major car company has developed or implemented some kind of autopilot technology into their cars. Not having that tech available could make a brand look out of date.

But at least some companies have bold business plans for self-driving tech beyond just fitting in with everyone else.

Most car brands are very concerned with their crash safety ratings. If driverless car tech will truly reduce the rate of accidents, car companies will want to push this tech forward. AI safety ratings could even become a future metric for prospective car buyers to look at.

Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, meanwhile, plan to make their taxis driver free, which would eventually mean not having to pay human drivers. 

In January, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said he wanted to have self-driving taxis picking up passengers by 2019, and that 20% or more of Uber’s fleet could be driverless. 

Other companies like Ford hope to incorporate their cars into city-wide networks that will track traffic conditions and available parking, so the company’s self-driving cars will reach destinations faster than other cars. 

Then, of course, Ford will sell their self-driving cars as a service to delivery or ride-sharing companies; Ford has already partnered with Domino’s and Postmates to deliver packages and pizza in a car that’s not actually self-driving, but pretends to be in order to gauge the public’s reaction.

Most of these companies don’t want consumers actually buying their self-driving cars

But, at least one car industry expert claimed that car companies want their driverless tech to be a “regularly recurring subscription model”, where customers, even used-car buyers, have to keep paying for the right to not drive. 

Whatever the reasons, these companies have invested too much money in driverless car AIs to stop now, despite the fact that many countries haven’t fully approved the use of self-driving cars yet yet. Businesses clearly seem to think it’s only a matter of time before driverless cars are on the road.

Where are driverless cars?

While self-driving car companies have convinced many state and national governments to let them test their AIs, nearly all governments strictly limit the cars from driving outside of testing tracks.

In the United States, 33 states have enacted legislation to allow for limited self-driving tests, but only a few states and cities let AIs be in control on public roads—and even then almost always with strict human oversight at all times. 

The exception to this rule is Phoenix, Arizona, where Waymo has been testing self-driving cars without safety drivers on public roads. 

Waymo self-driving minivan

Waymo self-driving minivan

Uber was also testing self-driving cars in Arizona until a high-profile fatal accident led to the state’s governor suspending Uber’s testing privileges there indefinitely. 

California is another hot spot for self-driving cars, both because Silicon Valley hosts so many tech companies and because California no longer requires a human behind the wheel if companies can prove their AI is up to the task. 

Cities in the US where you’re most likely to spot driverless cars include Mountain View and San Francisco, California; Phoenix, Atlanta, Pittsburg, Miami, Austin, Detroit and New York City

Europe, home to several huge car manufacturers, has many receptive countries that allow for limited driverless testing. 

Germany recently approved Volkswagen to begin testing self-parking cars at the Hamburg airport. 

Volvo is testing driverless cars and buses in Stockholm, Sweden. In the Netherlands, Amber Mobility plans to launch a Zipcar-like service of electric driverless cars in several Dutch cities in mid-2018. 

Amber Mobility will use the BMW i3 for its driverless car service

Amber Mobility will use the BMW i3 for its driverless car service

In the United Kingdom, however, the government recently initiated the UK Autodrive initiative to push autonomous innovation, but, at the same time, the government is also conducting a three-year review of self-driving technology’s safety implications, and haven’t approved testing on public roads yet. 

Australia, by contrast, has begun some public testing, but some reports say the country is lagging behind other countries in scale. 

In Asia, countries like China, Japan and Singapore have enabled companies to begin testing self-driving taxis, but always with a human behind the wheel. Uber rival Didi Chuxing is one company leading China’s push for driverless tech. 

As for autonomous tech found in cars like Tesla? You can find that in pretty much every nation, although most road laws dictate that drivers keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road at all times. 

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