Driverless cars – brilliant idea or completely frightening?  But if you look at the Google Car – which has logged over 700,000 road miles with only two accidents both of which involved missteps of a human driver – maybe it’s not such a bad idea.  Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation is quoted here as saying “People are not great at driving – 30,000 people die in in car accidents each year (in the United States).  Machines can be much better than humans when it comes to driving; they don’t drink or text and can think faster”. 

So whether you’re for them, against them or still on the fence – I bet you’d love to know how they work.  The short answer is software with several mighty assists from the hardware.  Although different manufacturers have different designs and different features the following categories of equipment and capabilities are necessary for your car to drive you places:

  • Lidar (either an acronym for Laser Imaging, Detection and Radar or a portmanteau of the words light and radar) – which uses laser beams to create a constantly updated 360 degree image of the cars surroundings
  • Radar Sensors to keep track of the distance between the car and any nearby obstacles and to gauge the speed of surrounding vehicles
  • Sonar – though somewhat redundant with the radar sensors, sonar also keeps track of distance to obstacles and other vehicles that can be cross referenced by the processing engine
  • Cameras – Also keeping vigil as to distances objects are from the car as well as detecting traffic lights, signs, pedestrians, bicycles and all those things we drivers need to pay attention to.
  • A main computer collects data, analyzes that data and continuously directs the car as to what actions to take
  • Sophisticated Software - the heart of the system – the software does real time processing of the data, assesses the behaving of other cars on the road and people and things in the vicinity.  

What’s completely cool is that while the car is driving along, stopping at red lights, reacting to road signs and avoiding read ending the car ahead – it is also in the process, much like a human driver, of accessing the potential situations going on around it.  It does this behavioral analysis process that collects data and compares current situations to its ever growing database of information it has learned from previous trips.  Just like you may slow down when there are children playing on the sidewalk, the car also has the sense to anticipate a child may run into the street and slows the car down as well.

Pretty cool technology and its coming faster than you think!