If car manufacturers can be believed, we could be cruising around in autonomous cars as early as 2020, and advances in artificial intelligence (AI) will be the driving force behind the rapid advances.
The biggest challenge self-driving cars will have to overcome is the fact that no two driving situations will ever be the same, and the vehicle will need to react to unique traffic, pedestrians, and road conditions instantly.
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That’s where artificial intelligent comes in. There’s no way engineers will be able to write instructions for every scenario — vehicle manufacturers will need to use big data and machine learning to make the vehicle act like a human driver.
This may sound like a simple task, but it requires an immense amount of processing power and extremely advanced sensors.
It’s not just car companies, like Volkswagen, Mercedes and BMW that are investing millions into research of this technology; it’s also tech giants such as Google, Uber, Tesla and Qualcomm. Even Bosch is at it.
So, how will autonomous cars actually work?
Cars will be kitted out with an array of sensors which gives the vehicle a 360-degree view of its environment. The types of sensor used will depend on the manufacturer, but most will use a combination of lidar, radar, laser, and video cameras.
These will give the car a 360-degree view of the world, with advanced AI in place to interpret the data from these sensors, keeping the vehicle on the road and reacting to scenarios as they happen.
But how will AI have an impact on your life? We’re glad you asked…
You'll get to your destination more quickly
Everyone wants to shorten their car journeys, and AI will be a key player in making that a reality.
We’re already starting to see the beginnings of this, but with further advances in technology, you can expect it to be even more effective and accurate.
Take Google Maps, for example. Google currently learns your commute, and will suggest the quickest route every morning to avoid traffic.
It can also dynamically re-direct you if there’s been an accident on your usual route.
To ensure you get to work on time, you can even ask Google Home how long your commute is going to take, and what time you should leave.
Combined, these systems help you shorten your journey as much as possible, letting you leave later in the mornings, and avoid sitting in traffic.
In the future, when we start to get vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, these predictions will become even more accurate, with servers being able to re-direct cars to avoid traffic jams at known pinch points.
Traffic jams will be a thing of the past.
Jaguar Land Rover is currently testing these sorts of systems in and around Coventry. The hope is that, ultimately, the technology will reduce phantom traffic jams, increase road capacity (as you'd be able to fit more cars in a smaller space), and reduce accidents.
Of course, this only makes sense if it works with every car on the road, not just those made by Jaguar Land Rover. So JLR is working with a consortium to ensure a standard communication protocol is adopted by the whole industry.
Traveling by car will become safer
As well as making your journeys faster, AI will also make your journeys safer. We’ll start to see this with so-called “Guardian Angel” technology.
This is an evolution of the safety systems we currently have in vehicles. Rather than being fully autonomous, a guardian angel system would assist the driver, augmenting human driving.
For example, the car would automatically steer away from a collision the driver didn’t see, apply the brakes to avoid a collision, or stop a driver from hitting something in their blind spot.
Of course, the ultimate goal with fully autonomous cars is to eliminate accidents altogether, but an important ethical question has arisen during the development of AI driving system — if an accident is unavoidable, who does the car choose to harm?
For example, does the vehicle maintain its course and kill a group of school children, or divert its course and hit an elderly couple?
Work on developing machine morality is already underway, with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) using crowdsourced, human perspective to inform these decisions.
You can head over to The Moral Machine to add your perspective to the scenarios.
You'll arrive at your destination relaxed
Making journeys smoother and safer is naturally going to lead us onto making journeys more relaxing. The recent semi-autonomous systems, such as adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist, already make long journeys and traffic jams less stressful.
In 2025, when you hop into a fully autonomous vehicle with no steering wheel, and you watch BBC Breakfast during your commute, while the car automatically navigates the fastest route, avoiding all traffic, it’s going to make journeys completely stress-free.
This will be combined with more advanced infotainment systems, which can learn your behaviour (automatically switching to Radio 2 in the morning, but Radio 4 in the afternoon, for example), and feature improved speech recognition, so the interior of the car is more like a serene spa than a button-filled machine.
Yep, we can’t wait.