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How modern cars already drive better than you do

Add sensors, lasers, and cameras, and the gap between today's heavily automated cars and tomorrow's self-driving cars is narrowing fast.

Automated vehicles aren't just a Google side project anymore. At the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, Toyota debuted its "advanced active safety research vehicle," which is basically a Lexus LS460 tricked out with cameras, sensors, and a whirling LIDAR laser. Audi also showed off some automated driving skills with a proof-of-concept sedan that was able to valet and park itself. And plenty of other automakers, including Ford, General Motors, and Volvo, are researching and testing out the technology.

You can see where this is going. When fully self-driving cars come online, the human will just be the one who signs the insurance contract. And if you think you're not ready to let go of the wheel, it's kind of too late: Cars started driving better than most people do about 40 years ago. People have gladly traded full driver control for greater ease and safety. So buckle up and learn how cars--whether heavily automated or someday, self-driving--can and will drive better than all of us.

It all started with antilock brakes

Although the fully automated self-driving cars we've seen so far look dauntingly high-tech (thanks mostly to that spinning LIDAR laser gizmo jutting up from the roof), the elements of self-driving technology already exist. Most of the cars on the road today incorporate at least a little automated technology, and have done so since the 1970's. Automakers overwhelmingly agree that the antilock braking system (ABS) was the beginning of "automated," or driver-assisted, technology.

ABS is a safety system that keeps cars' wheels from locking up and skidding when you slam on the brakes. The system uses automated cadence braking (pumping the brakes to maintain control of the car) and threshold braking (controlling brake-pedal pressure to maximize braking force). While both of these braking techniques can be performed by a skilled human driver, ABS is more effective because it can pump brakes much faster and with more control than a human can.

A modern ABS system monitors speed sensors on each wheel so it knows when a wheel is about to lock up, and it controls valves in each brake line. In other words, modern ABS is already somewhat capable of driving your car for you: Since it can control the brakes, it can also work with more-advanced algorithms (and with other pieces of technology) to keep you from tailgating, crashing into the car in front of you, or drifting out of your lane.

Combine modern ABS with electric power steering (which has been in cars since 1988) and cruise control (which dates back to 1945), and you basically have a car that can drive itself, if it knows where it's going. And that's where the fancy self-driving tech comes in.

LIDAR, cameras, and radars, oh my!

The main event of Google's and Lexus' self-driving cars is the whirling metal LIDAR unit that sits atop the vehicles' roofs. LIDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, is a laser range-finder that spins in a circle and creates a 3D picture of the world around it using 64 layers of laser beams. According to Toyota, the LIDAR unit atop its self-driving Lexus can detect objects (both metallic, such as cars, and nonmetallic, such as people and trees) within a 230-foot radius.

Of course, the 3D picture that the LIDAR unit paints is just the first step in the process of determining what's around the car and how the car can proceed. The self-driving Lexus has an array of sensing equipment to ensure that it knows everything: what obstacles are around the car, how fast (and in which direction) those obstacles are traveling, how fast (and in which direction) the car is traveling, and which direction the car is facing.

The Lexus features three high-definition color cameras (one forward-facing, two side-facing), each of which has a range of about 500 feet. These cameras let the car detect colored objects, such as traffic lights and signs, other cars, and lane lines. The Lexus also has radars dotted around the front and sides of the car. These radars can measure the location and speed of objects around the car--so, for example, they can tell if the car is keeping up with traffic or not.

The car has built-in GPS (two GPS antennas allow the car to determine its orientation), as well as an inertial measurement unit (IMU), which is sort of like a "super GPS," according to Brian Lyons, Toyota's manager of safety and quality communications. The IMU is capable of working when GPS cannot (such as inside a tunnel), and it also has accelerometers and gyroscopes to measure the yaw, pitch, and roll of the vehicle--convenient if the car happens to be at a weird angle on a hill. Not surprisingly, IMUs are typically found on unmanned aircraft. "The tech is basically here," says Lyons. "Everything has to get smaller and cheaper, but the tech is here."

A central computer ties it all together

Of course all of these sensors, lasers, and cameras aren't there simply to look good. They tie into a central computer, which also talks to the ABS and electric power steering. Basically, once the car figures out where it is, what it's doing, what's around it, and what those surrounding objects are doing, it can start to drive itself.

Driving is not really the issue. Think about it: thanks to cruise control, ABS, and electric power steering, your car is already capable of moving, stopping, and steering on its own. It's the "knowing what's going on" part that's difficult.

Now that many newer cars have these sensors--especially radars and forward-facing cameras--built in, we're starting to see some moderate forms of automated driving. For example, Volvo currently has two semi-automated systems: adaptive cruise control and "lane keep aid." Volvo's adaptive cruise control uses radars to monitor the speed of cars in front of you, and then automatically adjusts your speed to maintain a set distance between you and those cars. Lane keep aid uses forward-facing cameras to "see" lane lines, and uses power steering and ABS to nudge you back into your lane if you start to drift.

In its 2014 fleet, Volvo will combine these two systems into a more advanced system called traffic jam assistance. Traffic jam assistance will essentially enable Volvo cars to steer and drive themselves in heavy traffic situations. It will use the radars and cameras to detect car speed and lane lines, and then ABS, cruise control, and power steering to keep the car both in its lane and at a safe distance from cars in front of it.

But what's key here is that all the different systems need to work together in order for any semi- or fully automated driving to be possible. Being the safety-oriented brand that it is, Volvo is particularly focused on this aspect. According to Jonas Ekmark, an innovation manager in Volvo's safety electronics and functions section, the company tries to ensure that there are at least two channels of sensors working alongside each other. That way, if one channel fails (for example, the cameras can't see the lane lines due to bad weather), the car can quickly put the driver back in control. "The challenge is making it very clear when the human is in control, and when the car is in control," says Ekmark.

Future self-driving vehicles will talk to each other

In the future of automated vehicles, self-driving cars are only one part of the equation. The other part includes everything around the self-driving car--namely, other cars, streets, street signs, stoplights, and infrastructure in general.

That's right: the future of self-driving cars may have just as much to do with vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication as it has to do with LIDAR lasers and high-definition cameras. Vehicle-to-X (or Car-to-X) communication, as it's called, involves cars "talking" to other cars, roads, traffic signs, and infrastructure such as buildings and bridges over a special, protected car network.

This type of communication is important, because it gives the car extra knowledge about its surroundings. For example, with vehicle-to-X communication, a blind corner might be able to signal to a car when another vehicle is approaching. Or a broken-down car might be able to signal to other cars that it's having issues.

We saw some vehicle-to-X communication in action at Audi's piloted parking demonstration in Las Vegas. Audi's proof-of-concept car was able to valet and park itself, in part thanks to sensors placed around the parking garage. If Audi's piloted parking car ever comes to market, it will likely depend on infrastructure sensors in parking garages to tell it where there's an open spot.

Secure vehicle-to-vehicle networks are a long way off

Although just about every automaker is interested in researching and testing automated driving technology, none seem to share Google's optimistic timeline of three to five years.

"Google has done a fantastic job of accelerating public discussion," says Ford director of research and innovation Randy Visintainer. "But there are lots of challenges."

Some of the challenges include creating a secure vehicle-to-vehicle network, as well as making the technology affordable. "One of our mottos is 'technology for all,' and that means we need to think about how we can bring the cost down," Visintainer says.

And once the price is right, still more challenges loom.

The cars will be ready before the people are

"There are a lot of societal issues and legal hurdles," Lyons says. "There's no legal framework, so that's a big hurdle for automakers." At the moment, just three states--Nevada, Florida, and California--have legalized the testing of self-driving cars.

These laws, for the most part, don't really address the countless concerns associated with self-driving cars. Plus, in Nevada and California, the testing laws state that a licensed driver must be in the driver's seat, and the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic requires that drivers must "at all times be able to control their vehicles." So some of the cooler self-driving car ideas, such as Audi's self-valet, may never be allowed.

Finally, people just don't seem ready for self-driving cars. According to a survey by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, 75 percent of people polled expressed apprehension about totally autonomous vehicles. "They think it's neat," Lyons says. "But that it's not ready."

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