6 New Skills Driverless Cars Are Already Learning

Mark Wilson/ Getty Images

Mark Wilson/ Getty Images

Many people are excited or apprehensive about driverless cars, and some are both in equal measures. While self-driving cars have the potential to reduce the huge effects of human error on our roads, and thereby reduce the number of injuries and deaths that occur every year, the idea of getting into a car controlled by a robot is pretty unfamiliar. And people are just starting to try to wrap their heads around what driverless cars will be able to do and what kinds of smart features and capabilities they’ll integrate.

Since Google has been working on a driverless car for years — and Apple, allegedly, is at work on one of its own — we’ve learned quite a bit about the technology that will make these cars go. Driverless cars integrate sophisticated GPS systems, tech that enables them to sense changing road conditions, plus systems that enable them to act on that data to get you to your destination. Driverless cars integrate an impressive array of cameras and sensors to continually monitor what’s going on in all directions, and building on the static information offered by a map to figure out who’s moving and where so that it can prevent collisions from occurring. Radar and laser systems enable vehicles to sense their surroundings at an even longer range than a camera allows. The car processes all of this information to determine when to accelerate, when to hit the brakes, and where to navigate.

But beyond those basics, driverless cars will be able to do a lot more than simply get you from point A to point B. Check out these six new capabilities that will show in the driverless cars of the future, and imagine what life would (or will) be like with a much smarter car than the ones that you’re used to.

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Win McNamee/Getty Images

1. Driving on the highway and handling traffic jams

Mike Lowe at Pocket Lint recently spoke to Danny Shapiro, Nvidia’s senior director of automotive, to get an idea of what to expect from driverless cars and when. Shapiro noted that driverless cars are already on the road, thanks to companies like Audi testing prototypes and logging serious mileage. While just a few years ago, a driverless car needed an array of computers to complete the task at hand, Shapiro says that all of its tasks can be shrunk down to a single board: camera inputs, sensor inputs, and a processor running everything. Such a set up, Shapiro reports, “is able to handle traffic-jam assist, which means autonomous driving on the highway, lane keeping, and adaptive cruise control to maintain a safe distance.” Shapiro says that between 2017 and 2019, the driverless car will be a reality — “But don’t expect fully autonomous. It’s going to arrive in different modes: we’re going to see traffic jam assist; we’re going to see highway pilot; we’re going to see self-parking, where you can get out of the vehicle and it will self-park in the garage.”

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

2. Finding an empty parking space for you

Mike Ramsey recently reported for The Wall Street Journal that BMW has unveiled a mapping feature that would tell drivers where there are likely to be empty parking spots and how much they cost. The technology, developed by Inrix, could help solve congestion issues in urban areas, might reduce fuel use, and would be right at home in a self-driving car. The system would work similarly to the traffic congestion systems available through Google Map and some of its competitors, which show varying colors along different streets. Red would signify that it’s unlikely that a parking spot is available, while green would mean that it’s likely. The feature will also show parking garages and their prices and availability. The system first features six cities, Seattle, Vancouver BC, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Cologne, and Copenhagen, and is expected to be available for 23 different cities by the end of the year. After that, Inrix will continue to add major cities.

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

3. Detecting whether you’re too drunk to drive

Joann Muller reported recently for Forbes that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration unveiled a prototype for a self-driving car with an alcohol detection system that would prevent the car from being operated by a drunk driver.  The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety detects when a driver is above the legal alcohol limit by measuring the driver’s skin or breath, and if your blood alcohol level is above 0.08% — the legal limit in all states — the car will be disabled. In the breath-based system, which is being developed by Sweden’s Autoliv Development, the driver’s exhaled breath is drawn into a sensor on the steering wheel, which uses infrared light beams to measure the concentrations of alcohol and carbon dioxide. In the touch-based system, which is being developed by automotive supplier Takata and TruTouch, an expert in alcohol sensing with near-infrared spectroscopy, the blood alcohol level is measured under the skin’s surface by shining an infrared light through the fingertip from the start button or steering wheel. The systems are about five years away, and would be offered as optional equipment for about $400.

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

4. Helping you keep an eye on your kids

Researchers at the College of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University recently conducted a survey to find out which safety features consumers would like to see in driverless cars, and most were soundly in favor of putting parental controls on board. 84% of survey respondents thought it would be a good idea for parents of children or teens riding in a driverless car to be able to set the speed limit, curfew time, and number of passengers allowed in the vehicle. 61% favored the idea of a feature that would enable parents to limit the geographic range in which the car can travel, and 60% thought it would be a good idea for the cars to feature a display where parents could text to communicate with their children. Even a higher proportion of respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 were in favor of the features, especially when it comes to the idea of having a display for messages from parents in the car.

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

5. Connecting with your smart home system

The researchers at Carnegie Mellon found that another coveted feature of driverless cars will be their ability to connect with the owner’s smart home system. 71.8% of survey respondents said that they’d like a future driverless car to integrate the feature. Companies building home automation tech are already incorporating geofencing into their systems, so that security cameras can turn on when you leave the house, or your garage door can open as you turn in to your driveway. The same technology could enable your driverless car to alert your smart home system when you’re on your way home from work so that the system could kick on the air conditioning in the summer or warm up the house and turn on the lights if it’s the middle of winter. The Honeywell Lyric thermostat is just one example of devices that already use geofencing to determine where you are and how your house should be operating. And late last year, CNET reported that Apple was granted a patent for a system that would turn your iPhone into a remote control for your car, enabling it to start the ignition or pop the trunk as it detects your approach thanks to a geofence. It’s not hard to imagine how, in the future, Apple could combine the driverless car it’s supposedly building with its HomeKit home automation framework, all controlled by the device already in your pocket: the iPhone.

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

6. Communicating with other driverless cars

One feature that promises to really make driverless cars a safer way to get around is direct communication between self-driving cars. ABI Research reported in January that early implementations of the concept, called vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology, will begin appearing in the next few years. (And the firm expects wide-scale deployments by 2020.) The feature holds special promise for driverless cars, and some car makers have already experimented with exchanging information on hyperlocal weather, road conditions, and traffic data via vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems. Last year, the Washington Post reported that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx was behind the idea of direct communication between car computers in traditional cars, as well. Foxx said that connecting all of the nation’s vehicles could reduce non-alcohol-related traffic accidents by as much as 80% — which would mean preventing roughly 5.1 million accidents a year and saving 18,000 lives. The tech could also enable driverless cars to communicate information like when they’re turning and where, which could make the navigation process even smoother as driverless cars hit the road.

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