How Did We Get to the Self-Driving Car?

April 06, 2016

In 1885 Karl Benz invented the first true automobile. Later that year, he took it out for the first public test drive and crashed it into a wall.

Since then, for the last 130 years engineers have been working to make the car stronger and safer, adding added seat belts, air bags,  better brakes, and more. Now, we are ready to make the car smarter.

Experiments on automating cars have been conducted since the 1920s, but only in recent decades has the technology really begun to impact consumers. Today, billions of dollars are invested in making cars smarter using artificial intelligence and machine learning. Dedicated research and development of machine learning engineers has accelerated progress in the self-driving car, with new technologies being announced at a quickening pace. What are some of the most exciting advances today? How would they work in challenging contexts like a busy Indian road? Let’s look at some highlights.

Car manufacturers are taking this shift towards automation very seriously. At the end of 2015, Toyota announced the establishment of a new company Toyota Research Institute (TRI) that will focus not only on automated car technology, but also robot helpers for around the home. Their initial goal is to make cars that are not capable of crashing, allowing older people to be able to drive, and help prevent the one and a half million deaths that occur as a result of cars every year around the world. They are keeping humans as the center of their innovations, exploring the ways automation can make our lives safer and happier.

Another leading manufacturer, Tesla, announced its autopilot system in 2015. Based on machine learning algorithms, connectivity, and mapped data, Tesla is building precise and self-improving systems for automated operations and navigation. Machine leanring algorithms are being used on a massive scale to analyze sensor data and use it to make increasingly accurate predictions. The advent of the commercially available self-driving car will also bring new partnerships, like one between Samsung and BMW.

Together, they are working to create virtual brains that will power autonomous cars of the future. They aim to develop a smart assistant for autonomous vehicles, which will recognize the driver’s voice and help them execute commands while also paying attention to the road.

While commercial research in to car automation is certainly front and center of consumers’ minds, there is a great deal of academic research pushing boundaries as well.

A team from Nankai University in the north-east port city of Tianjin has come up with the first mind-controlled car. Drivers of the brainwave-directed car wear brain signal-reading equipment consisting of sixteen sensors that capture EEG (electroencephalogram) signals from the brain. A computer program that selects the relevant signals and translates them in to car direction. So far, the team has made a car go forward, backward, stop, lock and unlock all just by using the “drivers” mind. Though the technology is only in early stages, the effects on improving mobility for the physically disabled are fascinating.

Governments are also starting to take notice, with the US’ proposing to spend $4 billion over 10 years to accelerate the development and acceptance of self-driving cars on American roads. The administration  has also planned to work with state governments and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators within six months to reduce traffic accidents and significantly improve road safety. “Automated vehicles open up opportunities for saving time, saving lives and saving fuel,”commented U.S. Transportation secretary Anthony Foxx at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Even whimsical technologies are taking off. Slovakia-based “Aeromobi 3.0” announced their flying/driving car in 2015. The company has built a prototypes that can drive as well as fly. You can fly and land it in any airport, and it can be driven into any gas station to be refilled. CEO Juraj Vaculik aims to have the car launced by 2017, and is already planning on a fully autonomous two-seater flying car in the future.. It aims to be somewhat like a flying Uber or Lyft, dreaming of creating a very efficient way of transporting ourselves in the coming days.

These technologies – be they practical, far-fetched, or previously inconceivable – are positioned to revolutionize automobiles and transportation in the coming years.

How would they fare beyond well-documented and maintained roads? How would they fare, say, in my hometown of Kolkata?

In India, one person dies every 4 minutes on the road, with an estimated 207,551 deaths each year according to the latest report by WHO, “Global Road Safety Report 2015.”  The frequency of traffic collisions in India is amongst the highest in the world, due to  individuals not following rules, drunk driving, lack of safety gear, use of older and less safe cars, and poor road maintenance. Imagine unleashing the self driving car on these roads. In the ideal, the number of road accidents and traffic collisions will fall down dramatically, but this is actually a very hard task for the self driving car manufacturer. Automated technologies are being built in contexts that are fairly predictable, and well maintained. What happens when you’re on a Kolkata road jostling for space with countless other kinds of transport, people walking, animals and more? This could require another wave of innovation, perhaps one we should start sooner rather than later. When Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, had a conversation with the students of SRCC University in Delhi, he simply commented “that one is pretty hard.”

Self-driving cars will be able to follow every rule and signal, and maintaining safe speed limits on roads. They will communicate with each other, maximizing safety and speed. Physically disabled people, blind individuals, and other mobility-restricted populations will be able to move safely on road. Mothers will feel secure to send their children for school. Traffic will be less, as will fuel consumption. I, for one, can’t wait for that day and am looking forward to that day in Kolkata when I can reach my office in a self-driven car!