Car navigation has become commonplace. You can have expensive systems embedded in the car or choose low price, but very effective, navigators as add ons. They are providing you with ever more rich information to make your travel seamless and interesting (by providing additional information on what to see, where to eat and so on).
Lately your cell phone is doubling back as a Navigator, as does the iPad and other tablets.
But all these systems still require you to drive the car! Well, according to researchers at the Robotic Institute of the Carnegie Mellon University this does not necessarily need to be so in the future.
For the time being they have created a system that allows the car to park itself under the supervision of an iPod touch (an iPhone would do equally well). The system has been designed to meet the needs of people using a wheelchair and driving cars. The car requires special parking spaces to ensure a sufficient aisle to unload and upload the wheelchair.
With this system the driver can stop the car nearby the parking space, get out of the car with his wheelchair and then using his iPod touch assist the car in the parking. Actually most of the parking is done by the car itself using on board cameras and sensors but the (outside) driver can direct the car to the desired parking space. For those of us who remember 007 driving his car using his cell phone in Tomorrow Never Dies it is no news.
However, that one was a nice movie trick, this one is for real. And more than that. The (outside) driver is not remotely controlling the car but just providing direction on where to park.
Interestingly, this is the same department that created in the nineties a system to allow car to park automatically from parallel position, a feat that is now an optional in several cars. We might expect also this new system to become available for many cars in this decade.
Take a look at the video: per person sitting on the passenger sit is there just as a precaution but he’s not doing anything:
Of course this is but a first step towards cars that can drive themselves from A to B having us as passengers. Several studies and trials have shown that such automatic cars would be able to use the existing infrastructure much better: 40% more traffic could be managed doubling the average speed and decreasing significantly energy consumption and emission. For this to happen we would need a telecommunications system connecting all cars and a coordinator that can assign each car the best “driving slot” as it is being done today with the air traffic.
Of course, here we have a level of complexity that is several order of magnitude greater than the one we have in the air traffic control (in a way less critical since you can always have a car stopping to await a free slot whilst this is not possible on a plane that is flying). There are so many more cars than airplanes and it is unlikely to have people filling in a flight plan before boarding their car. Also, it is almost guarantee that most people will change their minds on where they want to go once they have started their trip.
The telecommunications network and autonomous systems will be crucial to make this happening. The interesting thing is that by having specific applications thought to meet specific needs we can have a bootstrapping for a new approach to traffic management.
It is obviously unlikely to expect these self driving cars to happen just for the sake of the common goods of saving petrol and decreasing emissions. Besides, the cost for the infrastructure management could only be sustainable if the number of self driving cars reaches a significant percentage, and the advantages would be felt, similarly, only if most of the cars would hook up into a global traffic management.
By having an economically viable starting point whereby more car will be equipped with cameras and sensors to be able to park autonomously and will be always connected to get traffic advise information we can really start a process that will lead us into a completely new way of vehicular moving in the next decade.
Trials like the one in Madsar are providing interesting information on what it takes, and means, to shift to self driving cars.