Tech Tips

Connected Life: From Smart to Self-Driving Cars

Smart connections are creeping into cars more and more, every year—with Bluetooth communications for existing devices becoming common even in low-budget new vehicles, and true Internet connectivity for your car and connected devices showing up not just in luxury brands like Cadillac and Audi but also in regular-Joe car makes like Chevy and GMC. You’ve probably also seen news here and there about the holy grail of car connectivity: Self-driving cars.

Unlike the much-talked about flying cars from the Jetsons that haven’t yet come to life, self-driving cars have been under active development for several years. Recent technology, regulatory, and legal developments make it clear that autonomous vehicles are indeed coming soon.

The technology
Cameras and ultra-sensitive sensors have been in use in cars for years, providing backup cameras and collision avoidance systems. Today, sophisticated cameras and sensors are being combined with new algorithms that let a car make all the driving decisions for you.

In addition to sensors, self-driving cars need to start with what they are supposed to see to help filter obstructions and dangers from the background—a very detailed map, in other words. This kind of map is lots more detailed than the navigation system you use today, including services like Google Maps or Apple Maps.

New Scientist reported from CES this year that in addition to Google, traditional car manufacturers are working on this, as well as several other pieces of technology, to make autonomous cars possible.

Mercedes has offered autonomous features for a few years, including the ability to sense a car in your blind spot and stop you from changing lanes, as well as letting the car handle the driving in a traffic jam or on the open road. So far, these systems have been designed and sold to work under existing regulations, which require a human driver to be in control of the car at all times.

Legal status and regulations
State and federal lawmakers and regulators are paying more and more attention to this technology. State lawmakers introduced about two dozen pieces of legislation in 2015, and now in 2016, related to autonomous vehicles—some designed to make them possible, some designed to ensure safety considerations are in place.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave self-driving cars more confident legal status earlier this year when it notified Google that it will consider the computer system of a car to be the driver, instead of one of the occupants. The State of California had tried to say that an occupant of the car must be equipped and ready to take over controls in an emergency, but Google’s cars under development don’t even have steering wheels!

The ethics
Some of the autonomous vehicle challenges are ethical more than anything else. Because autonomous cars will have sophisticated sensors, communications systems, and potentially the ability to collaborate, in theory traffic will also get smoother, as more vehicles make optimal decisions every time. But sometimes, a crash may be unavoidable.

And here’s where we get down to a thorny ethical issue: Should a car be programmed to protect its occupants at all costs? Or should it be programmed to cause the lowest projected number of casualties, potentially injuring or killing its own occupants?

In the end, these questions may be settled in Congress or a courtroom, but they’re important considerations, especially as technology gets even more sophisticated.

When can I get my self-driving car?
As manufacturers and regulators work out the details, most of us are just wondering when we can get “behind the wheel” of a car that will take the wheel for us. Some industry watchers predict we’ll see autonomous cars for sale as early as 2017 or 2018, and lots of analysts have said for sure by 2020, with sales taking off within the next decade.

Here’s to sitting back and relaxing all the way to work!