AI’s contribution to transforming society – Vehicle automation

A span of 50 years in technology’s perspective can be deemed a very long period; however, if one goes through the article called ‘The Electronic Highway’ published by IEEE spectrum in 1969, it feels like the 2 engineers Robert E. Fenton and Karl W. Olson, traveled half a century ahead to come up with specific solutions for vehicle autonomy.  What is happening now in the automotive industry is what Fenton & Olson had offered as solutions. Though obsolete today, the solutions look at the future with predictions that are coming true now.

In a fast world, such as the one we live in today, commute needs to be swift, smooth with minimal effort by the commuter. Just as the autopilot system in airplanes was designed to relieve the pilot of some tasks so that he could sit back a bit, specially on long haul flights, the emerging self-driving cars require little or no effort from the driver to navigate the vehicle.

For a long time autonomous vehicles, though talked about in articles and technology forums remained a distant dream. The Electronic Highway notwithstanding, suitable technology with adequate software/hardware was a challenge. However, many automotive companies have created ready to hit the road self-driving cars that can drive, park, obey traffic signals, negotiate an intersection and navigate through busy roads. In his book `Rise of the Robot’, Martin Ford says Google’s autonomous fleet in 2012 had driven over 300,000 accident-free miles on roads ranging from freeways jammed with stop-and-go traffic to San Francisco’s famously convoluted Lombard Street. The next year, Google released data showing that its cars consistently outperformed the typical human driver not only in acceleration and braking, but as well in general defensive driving practices.

Almost every car manufacturer across the world is actively into making fully automated, or partially automated cars. The conservative, or rather cautious approach of not going in for fully automated vehicles is because decision-making – a critical aspect in driving cannot be fully owned by machines. Technology is advancing in leaps and bounds and yet every designer, manufacturer or user is aware that no technology can be 100% reliable – at least not as yet. While roads remain consistent with good conditions maintained, the surrounding environment is always dynamic. Traffic diversions, construction activities, weather conditions, sudden road blocks are situations which no system is equipped to handle end to end. And above all, the crux of the issue here lies in the fact that an autonomous car may not be able to decide when to seek the human driver’s intervention.

Having said, autonomous vehicles have some to stay. Self-driving cars’ contribution to society would be a huge reduction in the number of traffic jams and all cars will drive with equal speed and in adherence to traffic rules and lane discipline, thus minimizing the chaos that can occur due to the diverse driving styles of humans.

As Martin Ford states, after electricity, the single innovation that is central to the development of society is the automobile. Very soon, we will look back wistfully to recall the long late evening drives, steering the wheel in sheer pleasure while listening to music and enjoying the landscape.

The other side of the coin no more road rage, driving tickets or penalties!


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