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Challenges and Opportunities, as Autonomous Vehicles Drive into New Horizons

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Shannon Cantor
ByPor Shannon Cantor

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Technology Drives Itself to New Possibilities  

Many thought that autonomous vehicles’ (AVs) rubber had met the road for the last time, after Uber’s self-driven car killed pedestrian, Elaine Herzberg, in March of 2018 (Randazzo, 2019). For tech developers, policy makers, and the general public alike, the tragedy forced serious consideration of technology– its power, advantages, and dangers. It’s now been over a year since the incident, and Google’s AV partner company, Waymo, continues to carry the baton of self-driving’s development. The enterprise, however, changes the traditional autonomous car approach– aiming not to build a “better vehicle,” but rather, a “better driver” (Waymo, 2017).  Thanks to this careful refinement and implementation, autonomous vehicles are now regaining popularity. The digital driver continues to be a matter of controversy, yet the industry cannot deny the incredible feats that Waymo has unveiled with its creation; the technology invented is the undoubted culmination of the most cutting-edge trends. Further, it represents powerful social applications– as we make tangible a future thought only to be real in fiction.

The Great and Powerful Oz: Technology of a Digital Driver

Let’s check out the technology behind Waymo’s autonomous vehicles. Drawing back the curtain, we see that the wizard at the wheel is, in fact, an incredible combination of the sector’s most trending developments:

  1. Mapping: Unlike Herbie the Lovebug, autonomous vehicles aren’t truly free to follow their call-of-the-wild instincts. In fact, they are limited to drive only within an area that has been previously researched and digitized into highly accurate maps. The spreadsheets are allowed a (literal) margin of error of only 1 inch, with further information on road signs, stop lights, traffic laws, etc.  This very specific mapping software serves as a base layer– the hotwheel’s initial tracks, as it were– upon which the additional technological features rely (Laukkonen, 2018).
  2. Drive-by-wire: In a series of software-automated upgrades, brake-by-wire, steer-by-wire, and electronic throttle control all collaborate in the formation of the digital driver. As the names indicate, sophisticated and computer-controlled, electrical engineering manages the car’s braking, steering, and acceleration, without the need of manual intervention (Laukkonen, 2019).
  3. Sensors: A team of laser bots actively measures and creates an internal image of the vehicle’s surroundings. Three types of specialized sensors–LIDAR, vision system, and radar– are all created in-house alongside Google’s AI developers (Introducing Waymo’s, 2019): one sees three football fields away, another at medium distance, and yet another in a short and wide range (Pegoraro, 2019). The sensors create a 360 degree picture, gathering real-time information on traffic, pedestrians, and any other objects not marked in the programmed map (Laukkonen, 2018). They even can detect the direction in which a car or human is facing, in order to combine with AI technology to predict movement. Because they are internally developed, their compatibility is also custom-designed for the rest of the car’s parts, optimizing the teamwork of all components (Waymo, 2017). Thus relying on the software’s ever-learning intelligence towards both its surroundings and accompanying hardware, the invention becomes an increasingly “practiced driver” (Introducing Waymo’s, 2019).

Frankenstein’s Monster: Implications in the Social Sphere

Waymo’s creation combines the most advanced forms of AI technology, computer programming, and also mechanical hardware, in a final specimen that brings science fiction to life. And the rare fact that all components were developed privately, in-house, only adds to the picture of a mad-scientist’s laboratorial invention. Its creators, therefore, likewise carefully monitor the technology’s release into the wild world of society. Its cultural applications and implications are powerful, controversial, and well worth analytical reflection.

  1. Safety: Following Uber’s fatal disaster of 2018, Waymo launched a marketing campaign that emphasized the safety and reliability of its creation. “We’re not Tesla, and we’re not Uber either,” says chief technology officer Dmitri Dolgov (Pegoraro, 2019). The company proudly advertises that it has accumulated over 10 million testing miles since 2009, in over 20 different cities (Safety, 2019). These efforts attempt to recuperate the social confidence that’s been lost in AV technology, and overcome an overall cultural distrust towards the digital driver. And Waymo makes a valid point: human drivers are little more reliable than robotic ones (Waymo, 2017). Car crashes–with people responsible behind the wheel–are cause of nearly 1.25 million deaths each year. Further, these human-driven accidents are predicted to be the fifth leading cause of death by 2030, “unless action is taken” (Road Safety, 2018). Waymo’s car bot may provide just this “action” needed, if AI technology may learn the road more responsibly and effectively than distracted, tired, or hurried human drivers.
  2. Use: Waymo’s revolutionary first test drive took place in Austin, Texas, in 2015 (Waymo, 2017). The only person in the car was Steve Mahan– but he wasn’t controlling anything. In fact, Steve is blind, and the former CEO of Santa Clara Valley Blind Center: “just a person in a car–no steering wheel, no pedals–navigating everyday traffic” (Waymo, 2017). To begin its chofering career in this way, the Waymo vehicle immediately proved its utility; it opens endless opportunities for countless populations, and may find applications in everything from healthcare to trade to tourism to family life. It saves commuters valuable time that can be dedicated working or reading, and may totally eliminate a costly infrastructure of DMVs and road licensing agencies.
  3. Technology: It combines software and hardware that is new, original, and highly effective. AI development is already a hot topic in security, in mobile apps, in marketing strategies, healthcare, and more. If this automobile learning machine is released onto the market, its brain will undoubtedly be picked for exploited application in all sectors and products alike.
  4. Society: But if our technologies are trending towards increasing connectivity, our societies are tending to individual isolation. A digital driver may replace a busy mother in taking her kid to soccer; but who will then cheer the little athlete on? It may transport a sick man to his doctor’s appointment; but who will then have the chance to be a good neighbor? Additionally, 3.9 million drivers worldwide find employment with Uber alone (Iqbal, 2019); imagine the number of unemployed human beings across the entire transportation sector, should a robotic replacement enter the sphere.

Mary Shelley’s monster of the 21st century doesn’t walk, it drives. And its bolts and screws–and sensors and AI software–all form a potent tool to be leveraged. Like all new technology, autonomous vehicles will bring great advantages and applications for many, and complications for others. Change also and always conjures debate, as cultures digest the pending social, financial, and safety implications. Yet Waymo plows ahead to promote all the positive possibilities of AV technology. Its top developers are, like all those at the forefront of creation, devoted to making their tools useful and positive for the public. Unquestionably, their brainchild is incredibly effective, with safety and positive utility as the highest priorities integral to innovation. With this in mind, we may continue marching (if not driving…) with confidence into our increasingly technological age.