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Self-Driving Cars Are a Modern Miracle Waiting to Happen

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Bran Ferren

When Bran Ferren was 9 years old his parents took him to the Pantheon in Rome. He looked around  at the marble and sculptures, which seemed typical in the ancient city, and then he looked up at the ceiling, which didn’t seem typical at all. It was high and dome shaped and at the top there was a small hole that let in a heavenly shaft of light.

“It was the first church I had ever been in that offered an unrestricted view of god,” he said. “That moment changed my life, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I realized that 2000 years ago people were smart.” The domed room was an engineering miracle because the dome was free standing, and it was an artistic miracle because standing in that room was a special experience.

What, asks Ferren, is the modern Pantheon– a miracle of engineering and art that will likely still be appreciated thousands of years from now?

The former head of Imagineering for Disney and now Danny Hillis’ partner in Applied Minds, Ferren is as qualified as anyone to provide an answer. He actually posed the question himself, to the audience at the TED conference on today in Vancouver, and promptly answered it: Autonomous vehicles—self driving cars.

Cars that can drive themselves, says Ferren, will be the key innovation that allows us to redesign our cities and our world. They’ll save lives by making driving safer. They’ll cut pollution by making trips more efficient. They’ll reduce road congestion. They’ll recapture vast amounts of productivity lost while we sit in traffic spewing pollution from the tailpipes. And they’ll enable compelling new concepts in how we design the workplace.

Most of the engineering needed to make self-driving cars a reality has, he says, already been accomplished:

1)    GPS delivers the ability to know exactly where we are at exactly what time;

2)    Web-based maps give us the ability to know where the roads are, the rules for driving them and where we’re going;

3)    Wireless technology provides near-continuous communication with big supercomputers as well as surrounding cars and other vehicles.

The only other technological breakthrough that’s needed is the ability for autonomous cars to recognize people, signs and objects.  “We can do a lot of this,” says Ferron, “but a lot isn’t enough when your families are involved.” Instead, a self driving car may not be completely autonomous—it may have to notify a human driver when it encounters an obstacle it can’t identify. “You may need to wake up your passenger to explain what that big lump is in the road,” he says. “But once you identify something, all other cars everywhere will know it.”

The coming of self-driving cars is only a handful of years away, he says, and they will permanently change our world in the next few decades.

Fred Guterl About the Author: Fred Guterl is the executive editor of Scientific American and author of Fate of the Species (Bloomsbury). Follow on Twitter @fredguterl.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Lacota 11:20 pm 03/18/2014

    It is interesting that when we talk about the challenges that autonomous cars will have we speak as though humans do not have the same challenges or are flawless in resolving them. An autonomous car doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be better than us, and based on my frequent travels on the highway during rush hour, it shouldn’t be that difficult.

    I question the notion that a computer needs to “know” what an obstacle is. Isn’t it enough that it is an obstacle? Still, object recognition has already been done successfully. We have systems that make life and death decisions based on this ability running now so I don’t see this as a problem.

    I also don’t agree that an autonomous car will be able to fall back on the human driver when it is having a problem. Things sometimes happen too fast for many people who are already engaged in driving to handle, forget about having to get someone’s attention and then hope they can instantly assess and make a decision. Quick decisions are what computers do best, if the computer can’t figure it out I doubt the wetware will be able to do any better.

    The real challenges ahead have more to do with the law, mixed models and perception. The first crash and near crash of commercial, fly-by-wire aircraft were caused by pilot error, specifically; the pilot overriding the plane’s decisions. I expect the same will happen with cars. There is also the question of perception and media attention. There were almost 34k road fatalities in 2009 in the US. How many did you hear about? If there is one fatality in an autonomous vehicle you can be certain everyone will hear about it. It is similar to how people perceive an increase in violent crime when trends are actually downwards only because reporting of violent crimes has increased. People will perceive that autonomous vehicles are more dangerous because every accident will make the front page while the car accidents caused by humans only make the obituary page.

    Someone pointed out that not long ago if you got in any elevator you would have a human driver at the controls. How safe would you feel now if you got in an elevator and and saw a human operator? Would you feel safe taking it to the 50th floor?

    We have already had one accident between an autonomous vehicle and a human driven car. The human rear-ended the autonomous car. I think this is the biggest challenge. For a time both human driven and autonomous vehicles will share the road. My concern is how well can the autonomous car make predictions about the human drivers around them. This morning I had someone cut in front of me on the highway. If I hadn’t slowed he would have hit me. He was counting on my self preservation to get out of his way. How would a computer react? I expect it would be programmed to do the same thing. So will humans learn to game the system and force autonomous cars to yield right of way? It is that interface between human and machine that is most challenging.

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  2. 2. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:11 am 03/19/2014

    I guess this article is to be understood in reverse “Google quietly scrapped its previously publicised self-driving car”.

    Pity, for it would revolutionize the life indeed. Not only travelling. If you can make so flexible program, you can have eg. self-operating farm machinery, self-operating janitor, self-operating construction work or indeed automate almost any job of an unskilled worker.

    Goes the way of jetpacks and Jetsons’ robot maid, I guess.

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  3. 3. tuned 10:38 am 03/19/2014

    Deaths and maiming will be reduced drastically.
    Air pollution will be reduced due to more efficient operations.

    Link to this
  4. 4. sethdiyal 12:35 pm 03/19/2014

    Of course this will eliminate hundreds of millions of jobs worldwide. What will they do now with automation taking the place of 90% of jobs now done by humans. Not everybody is capable of producing a movie, writing poetry, designing an app, or a rocketship no matter how well they are trained.

    Does this mean they are scum to be given a bowl of rice and a cardboard box to live in?

    Answer is massive tax increases on those who can and their corporations, mandatory work share and annual legislated work week reductions.

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  5. 5. SAULT18 1:03 pm 03/19/2014


    Yeah, just think of all those horse buggy whip makers that went out of business, or the switchboard operators or what have you. Oh, and don’t count all the IT professionals that had to be hired to run the systems that replaced these people, or the engineers that designed the systems. Our main problem is that population didn’t peak as low-skilled labor jobs began to be replaced with automation. And if you’re worried about jobs, you should support renewable energy since it generates much more jobs per dollar invested than other energy sectors. Nuclear energy creates jobs too, but you also need to hire a bunch of lawyers when the schedule delays that ALWAYS happen when building a reactor threaten to derail construction and the companies involved begin fighting over the leftover scraps.

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  6. 6. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:37 am 03/20/2014

    No, people all live better now (even the poorest) compared to 50 years ago, even if millions of dumb jobs were lost. People have mental overcapacity not required by menial jobs. A farmer can become vegetable trader, a woodcutter can become artist etc.

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  7. 7. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:47 am 03/20/2014

    Which is all the same, for there is as yet no machine which can navigate for itself in the environment shared with people, animals and real-world objects. Very sad.

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  8. 8. 6:11 am 03/20/2014

    I’m not sure how a car who that drive unassisted from door-to-door on a public road among normal (human driven) traffic for dozens of kilometers does not qualify as a machine that can navigate for itself in an environment with people, animals and real-world objects.
    You can find lots of examples online of drive test video’s that show this, created by various teams all over the world. They correctly detect, and react appropriately, to crossing pedestrians, animals, weird behaviour from other vehicles; it’s all very impressive, in real time, and at normal driving speeds.
    Frankly, I’m amazed at how quickly this technology has matured over the last few years. The cars don’t even look like they have been modified for automated driving anymore (no big racks of sensors on the roof).
    It looks like it’s almost ready for commercialization.
    One of many examples:

    Link to this

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