In early January, Mercedes-Benz captured the world’s imagination by unveiling a futuristic self-driving car prototype at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. In addition to being autonomous, the F015 Luxury in Motion, also promises to be fuel efficient and as its name indicates, the epitome of luxury. While this is in complete contrast to Google's compact, koala-like autonomous vehicle, one thing is apparent - if manufacturers have their way, driverless cars will be sharing the highways with human-driven vehicles, within the next decade.
While big automobile companies like Audi, General Motors, and even Mercedes, are slowing working toward complete autonomy with features like pedestrian recognition and self-parking, newcomer Google Inc. has decided to go all out. The company, which has been working on this endeavor since 2008, began by modifying cars made by other manufacturers using their proprietary technology.
Then in May 2014, they unveiled the first prototype of a Google manufactured autonomous vehicle. The small toy-like car, the first to feature no steering wheel, accelerator or brake pedal, was impressive, but it still had a few manual controls and was also missing essentials like headlights. The company's second prototype released in December 2014, is a little more advanced with features that may take away the fear of robot cars - things like foam and a soft windshield to dampen the blow of any potential collisions. But the company still has some work to do to get to its final goal - a bare-bones car that has two seats (with seatbelts of course), a start and stop button, a screen that shows the route and some luggage room!
While Google is designing a simple car model that is 100% autonomous, Mercedes-Benz, is going with a design that is visually appealing and environmentally friendly. With a smooth and streamlined roof, a flat front windscreen, and touch screen interior walls, the Mercedes F015 sure knows how to combine autonomy with sophisticated design.
These features are accompanied by swiveling front chairs that allow passengers to turn around and face the backseat passengers while the car is still in motion! The icing on the cake? The car will be powered by fuel cells, and is therefore completely "green"! However, this veteran car manufacturer does plan to furnish its autonomous vehicle with steering wheel and brakes, allowing the driver some control in case of a software malfunction.
There are however some challenges that still need to be addressed. For autonomous cars to navigate through a terrain efficiently, each new area must be painstakingly mapped out, with every detail accounted for. Driveways, stop signs, traffic lights, and speed limits all must be implemented into the vehicle’s mapping system before the car can get to its destination.
Furthermore, both Google and Mercedes-Benz face the daunting task of testing their autonomous vehicles in snow, heavy rain, and extreme weather conditions. This may not be an easy thing to do given that the currently available remote sensing technology systems do not do particularly well in foul weather. Additionally, both vehicles are currently not great at detecting the color of traffic lights when the sun’s rays are blinding the car’s sensors and have yet to figure out how to park in multi-level car garages and open parking lots.
The biggest challenge, however, will be to convince passengers and those driving alongside the cars, that they are completely safe to be in or around. It is, therefore, no wonder that so far only four states: California, Michigan, Florida, and Nevada, have passed legislation to allow for automated vehicles. There is also the issue of the disruption a wide-scale deployment would cause, for the millions of people that make their living driving others to their destinations. Hence, it may take some time before human drivers disappear altogether - but the future sure looks interesting.
Resources: gizmag.com, technologyreview.com, independent.co.uk