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How Do Self Driving Cars Work

How Do Self-Driving Cars Work?

Linsey Knerl
Reading time: 6 minutes
The wave of the future may be cars that actually drive themselves, but it’s still a new concept to many of us. How does the technology work? Are self-driving cars considered safe?
Learn what makes this change in automobiles so exciting and how it could impact the way you get to work or school each day.

What are self-driving cars?

While the term may imply that these are automobiles that can operate without the help of humans, the truth is that there are many levels of autonomy for even these new vehicles. Currently, cars operate almost completely with human direction, although some of the more advanced safety features can initiate on their own, including cruise control, lane awareness, and braking.
There is also a level of semi-autonomous driving that the newest tech has embraced. These cars have been on the road for a bit, with a driver to safely monitor and assist when needed. A car in this category may drive down a straight road in normal conditions without help, but a human would need to take over when the vehicle encounters a sudden change in direction or conditions.
The category of cars most people think of when talking about self-driving vehicles is one that has the tech to drive completely unassisted. The vision for these automobiles may someday include them operating without a driver assisting in any way or even being in the vehicle at all.

How do self-driving cars work?

Regardless of how autonomous a car really is, the tech that allows for even the most modest self-driving features is the same. Let’s take a look at some of these features.

1. Data sensing and collection

The car must scan its surroundings. Depending on the manufacturer, and there are many, this tech may include lasers, advanced cameras, radar, sonar, and light detection. The more sensors involved, the better of a picture the car can get of the outside factors. These sensors measure speed, terrain, and proximity to other objects to create a digital map of what’s happening in real-time around the vehicle.

2. Data analytics

All of the pieces of information picked up by the sensing equipment goes to the car’s computer, or brain, where powerful software applications process it. The software sorts through it all, determines a course of action, and sends the recommended driving path to the parts of the car that actually drive it. All of this can be done without the involvement of a human.

3. Controls

All vehicles use actuators to control the mechanics of driving and auxiliary jobs like cooling and door lock mechanisms. And for autonomous cars, the actuators mostly concentrate on making sure speeding up, braking, and steering are performed correctly. Instead of having a driver push down on a gas pedal, the actuator is directly told what to do from the brain of the car.
While this process seems simple, and it can be, many things are going on at different points in the drive to scan, interpret, and adjust the car’s driving path. For instance, while we know that it’s okay to drive over a trash bag in the middle of the road, will a self-driving car know this?
Only through advanced algorithms and data rules will the automobile know the difference between a real threat and something that shouldn’t alter the path of the vehicle. Even something as simple as knowing a child’s bike from a motorcycle needs extra coding to create an acceptable result. A combination of the right software and hardware is how self-driving cars work in constantly changing conditions.

4. The connected car

Another aspect at the center of self-driving technology is connectivity. These cars are designed to, someday, communicate with advanced systems such as GPS or emergency services as well as with one another. Having cars “talk” to each other on the roads is one way to avoid accidents and get traffic flowing in the most efficient flow patterns.

Benefits of self-driving cars

Science fiction movies may lead you to believe that these cars of the future will eliminate all need for drivers, replace taxi cab professionals, and even run your errands for you. The truth, however, is much more balanced. The way we could safely utilize self-driving cars in the next decade will most likely be an extension of how we already use advanced car technology.
Here are some benefits that these automobiles potentially offer:
  • Fewer accidents from driver error, such as judging distance between cars or driving while texting
  • Improved traffic flow and less congestion that stems from selfish driving behavior
  • Less fuel consumption as a result of more efficient driving patterns such as acceleration and braking
  • More time gained from not having to drive or getting stuck in traffic
  • Opportunities for those with mobility or mental challenges to go where they want
  • Less financial waste as a result of expensive lawsuits, medical costs, and property claims from accidents
Think of all the problems that come from driver error. While not all of them can be resolved by technology, many may be. Giving people more freedom for less money with fewer deadly risks is an appealing list of perks. As technology improves, these possibilities may very well become realities.

Are self-driving cars safe?

People can be understandably apprehensive when considering the notion of a car with no human accountability. It’s helpful to think of these cars less as an “all or nothing” approach but as a sliding scale of autonomy. Large companies like Google and Uber are working hard to move the needle on what cars can do when unattended. Their efforts show that many of the driving tasks we do every day can be outsourced to the brain of the car.
These activities can be safely monitored and perfected in controlled settings so that, one day, they could help us drive when we experience difficulties making our own driving decisions. State and federal lawmakers are keeping their eye on the market as well. Car insurers have weighed on in some of the features, showing support for the more straightforward features that could prevent crashes or help people park better.
Instead of asking if these high-tech cars are safe, some have asked “is any car safe?” Improvements made to protect people from distracted driving accidents or a deteriorating driving ability could be seen as an opportunity to improve safety. The self-driving car may be that opportunity.

The future of self-driving vehicles

There are some very real challenges to putting too much trust in the systems of an autonomous vehicle. If every sensor of a self-driving car is needed to make the best choice in movement, what would happen if snow, rain, or ice covered the sensors?
There is also the question of various terrain and environments for different geographies. Can a car that drives well in New York City also do well in rural Nebraska? Add in the nuance of state and local driving laws, and you can see that it will take some time to hammer out all of the possible variables that driving a car entails.
Humans make many decisions while driving that happen without us really knowing on a conscious level. Each one of these needs to be programmed into the car. While it’s possible, the switch to self-driving cars will likely be gradual and happen at an industrial or commercial level long before we are buying our own self-driving car from the local dealership.
As self-driving car technology improves over the next few years, expect to see more trials and opportunities to put these AI leaders to work. Who knows, the next generation could be doing their driver’s education classes in a very different way.

About the Author

Linsey Knerl is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Linsey is a Midwest-based author, public speaker, and member of the ASJA. She has a passion for helping consumers and small business owners do more with their resources via the latest tech solutions.

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