Science·In Depth

Reality check: the self-driving car

Developers around the world are competing to build systems that allow vehicles to navigate themselves. What's more, they're pretty close to achieving their goal.

Vehicles that navigate themselves expected this decade

Google's self-driving car detects and avoids a multitude of objects on the highway as well as following the rules of the road. Without a human driver, an automated vehicle can avoid many mistakes that driver errors contribute to. (Reuters/Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles)

In just a few years, you may be able to enjoy going for a drive in utmost comfort — leaning back and taking a nap, reading a book or sending text messages without worrying about crashing into a wall.

The self-driving car could turn this science-fiction fantasy into a reality.

Developers around the world are competing to build systems that allow vehicles to navigate themselves and some are pretty close to achieving that goal.

One such company is Google, despite being better known for its search engines than its automotive experience.

"More than 1.2 million people are killed in traffic worldwide every year, and we think autonomous technology can significantly reduce that number," says Chris Gaither, senior manager of global communications and public affairs at Google.

"This technology has the capacity to cut auto energy consumption, increase highway capacity and possibly reduce overall car usage through more innovative car sharing."

But while the technology is getting closer to being roadworthy, the question remains whether the world is ready for the fundamental changes that self-driving cars would bring.

Roadtrain platoons

Several teams around the world have developed their own approaches to how autonomous cars would operate.

A recent 200 kilometre test on the highways of Spain of a system installed on Volvo vehicles went off without incident. The modifications were developed by a consortium of European technology companies through Safe Road Trains For the Environment (SARTRE), a three-year project that began in 2009.

Passengers can ignore the responsibilities of driving to focus on other tasks. (Sartre/Volvo)

The goal of the project is to develop, test and encourage the use of automated "roadtrains" of cars on highways. Wireless technology and point detection of other cars on the road allow drivers to join a line of vehicles on the highway and transfer control to a lead vehicle. Drivers would be able to exit the train at their leisure, much like disengaging a car's cruise control feature.

"The main advantage is that the technology will set time free for the driver to do other things than driving," said Volvo representative Malin Persson in an email to CBC News. "Also, safety will be improved. Today more than 90 per cent of all accidents are due to mistakes by the driver — due to distraction, for example. An autonomous car can take care of this."

The lead car in the roadtrain could be any kind of vehicle, but in the case of the latest SARTRE test, it was a large truck. Other roadtrain benefits include a reduction in carbon emissions by 10 to 20 per cent and a decrease in traffic congestion.

There are some problems that still need to be worked out. The appropriate length of the roadtrain is still being considered — longer trains, although useful for long-term efficiency, may limit access to off ramps for cars in other lanes.

While the system does not require any special additional highway infrastructure, the fact that a roadtrain would be exclusive to freeways and require a professionally driven lead vehicle makes it more limited in scope than other designs.

Oxford University

Researchers at Oxford University are also involved in a self-driving car project, integrating cameras, radar and lasers to allow a vehicle to properly and safely navigate by itself.

Professor Paul Newman, the project lead, says human-free, computer-assisted driving would contribute to a more stable and regular traffic flow, improving safety and reducing traffic issues.

Oxford is intending for their own self-driving system to be first used on city roads. (Oxford University)

The project is supported by a grant from the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and through an association with Nissan and British aerospace firm BAE. Unlike other designs, Oxford's entry is intended to be used within city limits and was created for that purpose.

The system works by continually constructing and updating a 3D map via its own sensors, as well as wirelessly connecting with other cars and local traffic authorities.

The real-time nature of this system helps to determine the best routes to take on the fly, enabling drivers to avoid traffic jams and thus improving traffic efficiency.

In April, Oxford put in a request to the government to allow public testing of their self-driving vehicle, a BAE Wildcat. The decision remains pending.

Google driverless car

The Google driverless car project stemmed from a Stanford University project that was the first to successfully navigate the 2005 DARPA Challenge, a contest to develop a capable self-driving vehicle.

Within the decade, developers are promising self-driving cars that will navigate city streets with greater care and efficiency than a human driver. However, further inner-city testing is needed for refinements. (Karen Bleier/AFP/GettyImages)

Headed up by Google engineer and Stanford AI Lab director Sebastian Thrun, the project is meant to improve driver safety and reduce the possibility of accidents.

According to Gaither, Google's modular system uses GPS, video cameras, radar as well as online navigation features to watch for traffic, detect pedestrians and get passengers to their destinations. Inner-city navigation still requires refinement, but development is continuing.

Reality check — legality

Unfortunately for enthusiasts, the legality of self-driving cars is still in its infancy. There are big legal questions that need to be answered.

For example, who is at fault if special paint used for guidance measures on highways wears off and causes an accident? What about if a car's GPS system does not detect temporary barricades and crashes?

It is a confusing situation, especially when considering that in an autonomous car, the navigation provider, the manufacturer of the system and the actual driver are all involved in the operation of the vehicle.

The vast majority of nations, Canada included, have not even considered the possibility of self-driving cars on their roads.

"Currently, autonomous/self-driving cars cannot be legally operated on … public roads," according to an email from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. "Our legislation requires the driver to have control of the vehicle."

Mindful that it may soon have a driverless car with no place to legally drive it, Google managed to convince the Nevada state legislature to amend a transportation bill, becoming the first U.S. state to allow testing of autonomous vehicles on its roads. The bill became law on March 1.

In May, the state granted the company the first-ever license for an autonomous vehicle for use on its roads and highways. However, the legislation still requires a person to be in the car to take control in the event of an emergency.

Nevada becomes one of the first states to allow testing of self-driving vehicles on its roads. Only one license has been granted under the law, along with a unique set of plates. (Reuters/Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles)

"We believe the state's framework — the first of its kind — will help speed up the delivery of technology that will make driving safer and more enjoyable," said Gaither. "There are similar efforts underway in other states as well, including our home state of California. The main challenge continues to be the core technology itself, in particular demonstrating the reliability."

Gaither is confident in the capabilities of the Google driverless car, as it has successfully driven more than 200,000 miles across a wide variety of terrain and roadways. "We’ve taken the safety of the public, our drivers and our equipment with the utmost seriousness since the start of the project.

"We're very pleased with the performance."

However, even when the technology is ready for the open road, it could take time to win over motorists. A recent survey found that 58 per cent of drivers in the United Kingdom would be concerned about giving up control of their vehicle to a computer.

This unease extends across the Atlantic. A recent study by JD Power and Associates in March found that only one in five drivers in the United States would invest in a self-driving car, regardless of other factors.