An Incremental Approach
Google's driverless car has garnered a lot of attention lately, and rightly so.
The technology appears to work better than the average human driver. As in the
sci-fi movie Total Recall, the initial civilian application will probably be automated
vans and taxicabs that ferry people around congested cities. And, of course,
there's the obvious driverless tanker military application.
I don't really expect to see full-fledged Google cars selling in my local
showroom — or on amazon.com — any time soon. Rather, it's going to be an
incremental introduction to the technology. For example, take the autonomous
emergency braking system (AEB) that automatically and appropriately applies the
brakes if an array of sensors determines that the car is about to hit something.
Once relegated to luxury cars, this capability is appearing on more affordable
cars because of the precipitous drop in the price of sensors.
The issue with AEB systems — and many other autonomous systems for
vehicles — is whether they work in a stand-alone or networked configuration.
The stand-alone configuration is the default today, primarily because the
infrastructure is lacking for consumer vehicles. Truck fleets are a different story,
in that many delivery fleets are part of a network that monitors position, speed,
miles traveled, and other parameters through satellite linkup. There simply isn't a
standard network for consumer vehicles that can automatically control, say,
maximum speed to reflect weather conditions on a specific road.
This situation may change if US regulators follow through with promises to
implement a standard for vehicle-to-vehicle communications to eliminate
collisions. Of course, if new vehicles in, say, 2017 are required to have these
systems, it would take perhaps a decade for existing 'dumb' cars to disappear
through attrition. Until then, avoiding vehicle-to-vehicle collisions will be in the
hands of drivers.
Once vehicle-to-vehicle communications are implemented, it's a small step to
add vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. Moreover, instead of relying on
internal sensors and vehicle-to-vehicle communications, it would be possible for a
'smart' car to be aware of the 'dumb' cars on the highway by using roadside
electronics. It would also be possible for someone in law enforcement or the
government to monitor the position of your vehicle at all times. Think automatic
speeding tickets. Or, automatic taxation based on miles driven on a given toll
I can't say that I'm totally comfortable knowing that someone in the
government (or perhaps the management of Walmart) knows that I'm in the
mall parking lot. I wouldn't turn down an automatic discount coupon on my
favorite toothpaste, though. Who knows how my location data could be used by
a hacker, for example. I'm sure these privacy concerns will be addressed in time.
For now, I'm satisfied knowing that basic robotics are making a difference by
saving lives. SV
Mind / Iron
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ERVO FOR THE ROBOT INNOVATOR
6 SERVO 04.2014