Driverless cars have not yet arrived on Britain’s roads, but self-driving cars will be allowed to travel on motorways later this year. Hailed as the transport of the future, self-driving cars seem to be the next hot topic in the world of motoring. But how do self-driving cars work? We answer this question and more, below.
Self-driving vs. automated cars – what’s the difference?
Fundamentally, the clue is in the name. Self-driving cars can drive themselves in certain situations, but there must be a driver in place – with seatbelt drawn – in order to take charge should emergency situations be detected by the vehicle.
Automated or autonomous cars, by contrast, are driverless. These cars are one step further, in that they operate individually, and have been positioned as ‘self-aware’. There are six levels of automation that distinguish between a vehicle driven entirely by a human to an entirely autonomous vehicle.
The technology of driverless cars
The specific technology of each vehicle will vary depending on the manufacturer. Broadly, however, driverless cars – that is, automated cars – will have the following features:
- LiDAR sensors – These are light detection and ranging systems. They beam laser light in order to map the car’s surroundings, thereby detecting the edges of roads and lane markings.
- Radar sensors – These observe nearby vehicles and their speed, in order to avoid collisions.
- Video camera technology – Similarly, this tracks obstacles and pedestrians, working with the radar sensor to mitigate collisions and taking stock of road signs and traffic lights.
- Ultrasonic sensors – These detect curb edges and other vehicles – they’re fundamental for parking and manoeuvring.
- Central computer system – Driving all of the above is a central system which combines data from each technology. This therefore manages braking, steering, and acceleration.
Self-driving cars – the advantages
The advantages and disadvantages of self-driving vehicles are still under contention, but their benefits are typically agreed as the following:
- Greener – Proponents of self-driving cars say they’re more environmentally friendly, as they work to streamline traffic flow by optimising road space and will therefore consume less fuel.
- Safer – With less traffic and a smoother throughflow of cars, it’s anticipated that self-driving cars will make streets safer by reducing risk of accidents and human error.
- More accessible – Self-driving cars inevitably make transport more accessible for individuals with disabilities – or those who never learned to drive in the case of automated vehicles. It’s therefore suggested that they’re a more inclusive mode of travel.
Self-driving cars – the disadvantages
As the technology for fully driverless cars still has a long way to go, there are many disadvantages to self-driving cars.
- Safety – Proponents of self-driving cars say they’ll make streets safer – but the industry is, as yet, unregulated. There are serious concerns about the risks of vehicle computers and systems becoming vulnerable to hacking. Computers may also experience wear and tear – and any software error could lead to accidents with pedestrians and other vehicles.
- The environment – Self-driving cars will require a vast amount of infrastructure to be built across Britain’s roads. Their technology will also operate via 5G, which will sap significant energy resources – most of which are fossil fuelled. Self-driving cars are therefore not climate conscious modes of transport just yet.
What are the rules for self-driving cars on motorways?
As described above, the British government are permitting self-driving vehicles with an automated land-keeping system (ALKS) to travel on motorways from sometime in late 2021. These self-driving vehicles will only be permitted at speeds up to 37mph in slow traffic.
Critically, these self-driving cars are not driverless – you still need someone behind the wheel wearing a fastened seatbelt. The driver must be able to take control of the car in the ten seconds after the vehicle detects an ‘imminent collision risk’. If such a risk is detected, the car will deploy an ‘emergency manoeuvre’ in order to either brake or evade the obstacle. Should the driver fail to respond, the car will automatically switch on its hazard lights, slow down, and turn off the infotainment system.
Upgrading your car
As yet, owning a self-driving car might be a pipedream. But you can still keep your car up to date with all the latest technology to make your life easier, from parking cameras to keyless entry.
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