It is strange that while much of our life is governed by health and safety, it's perfectly legal for one to zoom around in a metal box with wheels at 70mph. However, after the world's first licence for an autonomous vehicle was given to Google’s Driverless car this year, perhaps this is about to change.
Google is not the only company making headway with the autonomous car. Dr. Chris Gerdes, Director of the Centre for Automotive Research at Stanford University, is currently trying to understand the mindset of professional racing car drivers in order to perfect the autonomous vehicle. Humans Invent sat down with Dr. Gerdes to find out how advanced autonomous cars have become.
Dr. Gerdes says, "A lot of companies have been doing testing such as Google and there has been a number of university projects as well. In most situations today it is very possible to have a car drive itself. If you take a US freeway or a British Motorway, it is not a difficult setting for the conventional technology we have, with cameras, laser radars, GPS etc, there is enough understanding for a car to be able to drive itself and to change lanes."
However the real challenge now is in making autonomous cars adapt to unusual situations, after all anything can happen whilst driving.
"You may have an algorithm in your car designed to recognise pedestrians with two arms and two legs but people in Halloween costumes, for example, can look very different. Humans can pick that up but can the car?" Gerdes says. "That is really where we are right now, we are trying to understand what these unusual situations are that humans can inherently comprehend, then take the right action and work out how we identify those and make that algorithmic for autonomous vehicles."
When it comes to mapping the environment around you, Gerdes believes radar will play a pivotal role. He says, "The Google cars use a scanning multibeam laser on top of the car. That is a solution that most manufacturers believe won't get onto production vehicles -- to have this thing sitting on top of the car all the time. They're looking more at what you can do with radar and with cameras. The radar has made huge steps in the last 16 years... now you can get a Radar for about £60 which is fantastic."
Recently, Gerdes has been analysing the way racing drivers control the car to see if their techniques can be applied to the driverless vehicle. He says, "The response of the human race car driver is very different from what you get in a stability control system on a production car today. A lot of the systems that have been developed for vehicle safety are assuming in some way that you are a relatively unskilled driver, that you want to make sure it doesn't do the wrong thing. But if you look at race car drivers they approach things very differently. If you look at rally car drivers they do exactly the opposite of the stability control system, they deliberately put the vehicle sideways so that they never lose control."
There is enough understanding for a car to be able drive itself and to change lanes
Gerdes and his team translated what they had learnt from the human drivers and applied this to an autonomous rally car that goes up to 150mph and can navigate the 153 turns and 12.4 miles of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb in Colorado without a human behind the wheel.
Of course, watching an automated car in a race would become rather predictable when you take away the human element and Gerdes is a man who has a passion for driving and racing. He says, "I'm somebody who really enjoys driving so from an intellectual standpoint it's fun to have the car drive itself but as far as actually being in the car when it is driving itself, it is nowhere near as fun as when I'm driving it."
"We are really interested in something in between these two extremes but that is proving to be a real problem. When you say the human is in charge of everything, I can easily define what the human has to do," Gerdes continued.
"When you say the car is in charge of everything I can likewise define what the car has to do. When I get into the situation of both the human and the car having some understanding of the environment, having some control over what the vehicle does, it gets a lot trickier."
Personally, I'm quite happy to hand over the reigns to a machine when it comes to driving, though judging by the huge popularity of Top Gear, some people might not agree with me.
Humans Invent is an online space dedicated to celebrating innovation, craftsmanship and design fueled by our most natural instinct – the pursuit of invention to help solve a human need. You can read their original article here.