There has been a lot of press lately about the advent of driverless cars in the near future. Many are predicting that they will be common in another decade. They have already been experimenting with some and they allegedly work just fine. Heck folks are already noting that there will be a plethora of novel issues that will arise because of this new technological wonder. Maybe it really will happen this time. There have been many predictions in the past of some great leap forward in the technology of automobiles before. If you read Look or Life magazines 60 years ago there were pundits who were predicting that most cars within a short time would really be flying cars. They had lots of prototypes during that era. Some were small with wings that would fold up or down just like the fighter aircraft on aircraft carriers during WWII. Many others were a miniature helicopter. There were predictions that the suburbs would be even farther removed from the city center and that fewer roads would be necessary because so many commuters would be flying in to work. They believed the Interstate highway system had done all that was necessary the big challenge was going to be creating and controlling the flying lanes in and out of the city with different flight levels for inbound and outbound traffic and then the cross traffic. Of course many really smart people were shortly predicting also that we were about to enter a new Ice Age. The cost of the new control systems and the cars themselves were to be mostly covered by the gazillions of dollars saved in not building new highways. They were going to be the next Big Thing. How many flying cars you seen in your neighborhood lately?
Cars can be made to drive without human control now using off the shelf technology but it would have to be integrated to work properly. The primary components will be a gyroscope of one type or the other, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), an inertial navigation system, GPS and radar. We have all these already and have had some for over a century but they will have to be coordinated with a master computer software system even though the MEMS is a miniature computer and GPS works with computers. We’ve had gyroscopes since early in the 20th century. A fellow named Sperry developed the one that was the most famous and was used by the US Navy and other Navies around the world for decades. It was purely mechanical and expensive to make but quite accurate. What you say is the purpose of a gyroscope–the found true North. You know that magnetic north is off by several degrees and hundreds of miles from the North Pole. A gyroscope is essentially a spinning wheel that never stops, indeed that is the whole point. When operational the spinning gyroscope will aligned itself with the spinning axis of the Earth. I don’t pretend to understand the physics of this but trust those guys in the lab coat it works. It is momentum. Once you know true north then you can start figuring out where you are, where you have been and where you are going. They now have laser type gyroscope that serve the same purpose. The MEMS measure torque and acceleration. They use tiny mechanical measures and electric impulses to do this. I can’t explain the science behind them but they work and have for a couple of decades. By the way these tiny devices are already in use in your air bag deployment system and your electronic games and inkjet printer. The gyroscope allows you to determine yaw, pitch, roll and direction of the vehicle it is in but it doesn’t tell you where you are without reference to something else. The Inertial navigation system is used by the military because it doesn’t depend on outside factors to determine the direction of movement. this is used for our rockets and cruise missiles. It can’t be electronically jammed which is important in military terms but again it won’t really tell you where you are going.
So you need mapping by the traditional method even though enhanced with computer readings from “maps” built into the rocket or car or a GPS. The GPS has been mostly used now for a couple of decades. With GPS or mapping in the system then the “car” will know where it is and where it is going. Lastly the car will have a small radar system to see objects, like other moving cars, and thus “advise” the total system when to turn or stop or slow down to avoid collision. So all the parts to work the car and control its speed movement direction and acceleration are in place. They will have to be coordinated by and utilize a master software program. Many of the parts and pieces as you know are already in place in the newer cars today. They all have GPS and those MEMS and some are getting radar.
First thing that concerns me is the idea of hacking. Gee, the papers are filled almost daily with some story about hackers getting into all kinds of vital systems, banking, military, dams, Social Security, etc. What will happen to the traffic on your favorite Interstate highway when some pimply faced teenager hacks into the highway/car control system? Or even worse a foreign entity that wishes us ill. Of even greater concern will be a hacking into the GPS system. So much of our modern world is now dependent on GPS that simply shutting it down or scrambling the signals would wreak untold havoc throughout our civilized world. There is the conspiracy case to be made that the Government could shut down the system any time it wanted and ground us all for whatever their reason. Remember the Boston lock down of just a couple of weeks ago? Imagine that anytime the Government thought it advisable.
There is also the question of the countless people who prefer to be in charge, they want to be driving that car not be dependent on some unseen distant computer system. They like driving in addition to be a Type A personality. Just because we can do it will that whole new system be marketable? Will we be willing to pay the extra costs. Of course there is the problem of computer shut down. Not hacking just the typical computer crash. We all know that does happen. For whatever reason it just goes kablooey. Be rather awkward at 70 miles an hour. We’ll see how it turns out, or at least many of you will.
“Predictions are hard things, especially about the future.” Yogi Berra baseballer extraordinaire. http://www.olcranky.wordpress.com