Energy

The Latest in Self-Driving Cars

A gallery of automakers’ efforts to make driving better by eliminating the driver.

GM demonstrated its EN-V concept vehicle at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year. The small, maneuverable electric vehicles ride on two wheels, like the Segway. They can also be networked and drive themselves. In one demonstration, the vehicles dropped off the driver, and then made their way to a parking spot on their own. GM intends the vehicle especially for megacities such as Shanghai, which is where it unveiled the first slick concept version of the cars.

A team including GM and Carnegie Mellon built the winner of the Darpa Urban Challenge, a contest in which autonomous vehicles raced without drivers in a simulated urban environment. The contest boosted GM’s efforts in vehicle automation.

Audi demonstrated its automated research vehicle in a trip to the top of Pike’s Peak. The automaker is developing systems that can automatically control vehicle speed in response to traffic conditions, or intervene to prevent a driver from accidentally running a red light. Warnings about slick road conditions can be communicated to other vehicles. 

Video cameras, radar, and lidar sensors have controlled Google’s automated Prius for over 140,000 miles. Before the car drives a route, a driver first drives the route while software takes note of lane markers and traffic signs. The company reportedly has been influential in getting legislative approval for the use of automated cars in Nevada. From Google’s blog: Google hopes automated cars will allow “ ‘highway trains of tomorrow.’ These highway trains should cut energy consumption while also increasing the number of people that can be transported on our major roads.”

BMW’s semi-autonomous test vehicle automatically brakes, accelerates, and passes slower vehicles—at over 70 miles per hour. It can also slow down or change lanes to allow merging cars onto the road.  It uses lidar, radar, ultrasound, and video cameras to keep track of its surroundings—each technology checks against the others for improved accuracy—and pairs this with GPS and maps. The company is also developing systems that allow the car to park itself and to take over monotonous driving in traffic jams, automatically maintaining a safe distance between cars. 

Horizontal elevators: Autonomous cars are already operating at Heathrow airport, where they’ve been ferrying passengers since April. The computer-controlled, battery-powered cars automatically drive along a specially prepared road, pulling up to a station when riders press a button, like an elevator arriving at your floor. Once inside, riders select the destination, and pods take them there while a central computer controls the acceleration and steering and coordinates with other cars on the track. When the battery is depleted, the computer directs the car to a charging station. The system at Heathrow is simple—there are two stations at a car park and one at a terminal—but the company that makes it, UltraPRT, says the system could also work with a complex network on a campus or city. See it in action here. A similar system is running at Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. (It’s shown at 3:28 in this video.)

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