Not so long ago, a lot of people expected to see flying cars in the near future. Instead, we’re seeing cars that can drive themselves. Not bad really, as any progress is good progress. Technological advancements allowed car manufacturers and other giants, such as Google to develop and test autonomous car systems that use radars, GPS, lasers, computer vision and motion sensors to detect their surroundings and interpret sensory input to determine paths, obstacles and road signs.

So far, only semi-autonomous cars are used in commercial use, but it’s estimated that fully self-driving cars will be available on the market by 2019. The general idea behind self-driving cars is to reduce the number of traffic accidents on the roads and improve the safety of both drivers and pedestrians. However, not everyone is happy about surrendering control of a car to a computer and there are still concerns about potential security issues such as cyber attacks. So, let’s see where it all started and what can we expect from self-driving cars in the future.

Where it all began

The self-driving car concept goes back to the 1920s, when Houdina Radio Control took their radio controlled 1926 Chandler known as “American Wonder” for a spin on the streets of New York back in 1925. However, the most notable event in the autonomous car history was back in 1980 where Mercedes-Benz’s robotic van designed at Bundeswehr University Munich in Germany managed to drive 39 miles/h (63 Km/h) on the streets with no traffic involved.

After the pioneer’s success, EUREKA funded a €749,000,000 Prometheus Project in Europe from 1987 to 1995 with state-of-the-art autonomous cars. At approximately the same time, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) funded the Autonomous Land Vehicle (ALV) project in the U.S. based on technology made at Carnegie Mellon University and the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan.

Where we stand now

A lot of major car manufacturers today, such as Ford, Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, Toyota, Nissan BMW and others are testing and developing autonomous systems for self-driving cars. However, the main contributors to self-driving cars are definitely Google and Tesla Motors, which are pouring the most research and funds into developing a fully autonomous car. Google’s self-driving car project fleet has driven 300,000 miles (480,000 km) with no accidents back in August 2012 and as of December 2016, the fleet has self-driven 2,000,000 miles (3,219,000 km).

The technology used in autonomous systems today consist of adaptive cruise controls for highways, parallel parking assist, lane keeping, acceleration/braking control and accident avoidance systems, as well as driver fatigue detection. Moreover, Tesla Motors are designing their Auto Pilot feature since 2014. So far, the hardware consists of eight surround cameras and twelve ultrasonic sensors and a forward-facing radar. Future hardware installments will include lane holding and active cruise control, as well as automatic emergency braking and collision warning. Tesla is set to test a fully autonomous car by the end of 2017.

Autonomous and connected

Connected cars is another feature that follows autonomous cars. The term connected refers to connecting your car with the online world via the Internet, but it’s a bit more than that. Connected cars will be based on telematics technology that encompasses telecommunications and computer science, which include everything from calculating destinations for less fuel consumption, parking assistance, traffic information using GPS up to connecting and communicating with the outside world like architecture, other cars and pedestrians using mobile devices, turning a car into a mobile platform.

Connected autonomous cars will provide more safety, less fuel consumption and other various features such as voice recognition and commands, commands using hand gestures, self-parking and much more. However, this concept is still in its early stages of development, but in few years it could be fully functional and implemented in self-driving cars.

Do you require assistance?

Popular AI virtual assistants such as Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa may become your driving companions in autonomous cars in the near future. As a matter of fact, Nissan is already cooperating with Microsoft to implement Cortana in their vehicles, while Volkswagen is planning on implementing Alexa. So far, these virtual assistants are designed to help you with navigation, locations, reservations and so on.

However, in the future, these AI assistants may do more than just make your road trip more convenient. Their machine learning capabilities allow them to learn driver’s preferences which will allow them to plan out routes, interpret voice commands, and even remind you that you didn’t lock the door when you left the house. These AI assistants could be ideal interfaces for self-driving cars, since they’ll be able to integrate with the car’s systems and connect to the car’s surroundings as well.

Autonomous cars are becoming more popular each year. The idea to reduce traffic accidents and improve road safety by introducing a self-driving car is quite welcome, especially since 90% of accidents are caused by human error. However, we’ll have to wait a bit more, until we can see this concept in action.

Posted by Raul Harman