What if it were easier for you to drive around, no matter your age or physical inabilities? Google has spent years and untold fortunes designing the driverless car. Google says that their car of the future has passed the 100,000 mile per month mark without an accident for first month in the car’s history. The past months have seen a sizable number of accidents for the Google car but few were at the fault of the driverless vehicle. The future vision is to reduce car crashes. But even with number of automotive safety innovations we enjoy today, auto accidents are still one of the leading causes of death in the US.
Experiments with the goal of creating an autonomous vehicle first began in the 1920’s and have grown at an ever increasing rate. Currently vehicle manufactures have different definitions for autonomous versus self-driving vehicles. It seems the car makers consider autonomous vehicles only capable of unassisted driving under certain circumstances. They invasion more driver assisted innovations and vehicles with the same steering wheels and pedals of today. This is probably because the technology to produce these vehicles is already within easy reach, while the self-driving vehicles are a technology jump (or maybe several leaps) ahead of the driver assisted vehicle.
Each decade since the 1920s has seen some driverless innovations or at least patents for concepts of future driverless vehicles. There were notable advances in the 1950s and the Stanford Cart of the 1960’s. The cart was designed as a prototype for the lunar rover and could cross a room without help in only five hours while being tethered to a huge computer.
But the first true autonomous vehicles didn’t appear until the 1980s. These first driverless vehicles where the result of Carnegie Mellon University’s ongoing history of projects in robotics. Since then many major companies and research facilities have focused their efforts to advance driverless technology.
Even DARPA, the secret government research center and father of the internet (no relation to Al Gore) got into the driverless action in 2004. They sponsored The Grand Challenge – a multimillion dollar challenge for autonomous vehicles.
Early in 2015 Google announced that its driverless car would be available to the retail market by 2020. The company is in talks with major auto and technology based companies to assist in producing this car of the future.
Recent patent searches show the company seems to care just as much about pedestrians as the occupants of their driverless vehicles. Patents from the corporate giant include details about video screens placed around the outside of the vehicle and audio systems that provide verbal warnings to aid pedestrians. Documents show how video screens placed on doors, hood, and other prominent locations may help others to decide when it is safe to walk, bike or ride around the robot vehicle.
There are also details of a robotic arm. The arm is designed to simulate human motions to those passing near the vehicle. What isn’t at all clear is how well a robot arm will be recognized and used by those outside the vehicle or if it will have any recognizable fingers.
The car also has patent details for external airbags to protect pedestrians. These airbags by their nature will be very different technology from that of in-car air bags. The external pedestrian protection has a thicker consistency than traditional air bags, in fact the material used is said to be similar to the material used in memory foam matrasses. The vehicle shares this or a very similar concept with Volvo.
These vehicles do really exist outside the patient papers and minds of their inventors. Residents of Mountain, View California and Austin, Texas often see the egg shaped vehicles as a part of their daily commuter traffic.
Where laws may not specifically exclude driverless vehicles from public roads, a few states and countries have passed laws expressly allowing the vehicles. Along with a growing number of US States approving the use of driverless vehicles, the countries of France, the UK and Switzerland have Ok’d usage on public roads.
There is a lot of speculation as to the interior of the driverless vehicle and to the dash or control panel. The Google egg cars have occasionally been on display. But few if any people outside of Google employees have actually been inside the vehicles. When the cars have been on public display, there was no access to the inside of the prototypes short of looking in through the windows.
The good news is there seems to be at least two cup holders and speakers in both doors. There are egg models with a removable steering wheel and petals and models with no provision for controls at all. One would have to guess that after some point the chauffeured riders would become completely comfortable and would no longer be concerned with driving or navigation duties. So with no one paying attention, where’s the need for controls?
The car interiors of the future will be designed for passenger entertainment. The windshield will no longer be important to guiding the vehicle and may become opaque at the flip of a switch or a verbal command. The forward looking real estate will likely become a screen for heads up displays and HD videos.
With no driving duties required, the driverless cockpit will become a work and play area. Reading, watching videos and doing whatever you would be doing at your office desk will be the norm. Even the occasional short nap could help to pass the travel time.
Navigation, traffic and road conditions will be vitally important to the computer responsible for doing the driving. Communicating the navigation info and all the other data will require a lot of bandwidth. Automated car to car communications will be important as well. Cars will need to share their speed, braking and many other pieces of operational data with the vehicles around them.
Without the need to find their way, vehicle occupants will make a completely different use of navigation data. Riders who are interested, can the kept informed as to the places of interest as they travel past and them, much like an automated tour guide as well as expected arrival times for various locations.
Car audio will be at least as important to travel entertainment in 2020 as today. Whether it is creating a pleasant musical environment or presenting talk and sports entertainment, you can expect Alpine and the top aftermarket audio suppliers to add to the driverless experience.
Google’s 2020 delivery date for a driverless vehicle may be a bit ambitious. But the advancements necessary to make the technology reliable are happening at an ever increasing rate. If the Google car of 2020 is not fully driverless, it will at least be safer and make transportation available to more people than ever before.