An LED display for driverless cars aims to give pedestrians at a crossing the power to communicate with vehicles, signalling for the vehicles to stop or drive on. Blink, created by researchers at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London, turns the awkward dance of eye contact and hand gestures that happens when a car slows down while someone is waiting to cross the road into something driverless cars could understand. If a pedestrian raises their hand as a stop sign, the figure turns green, and the car is prevented from moving forward. But George Filip at the University of Nottingham, UK, isn't convinced it's a good idea to give pedestrians control over autonomous cars.
Now a study has shown that self-driving cars can be taught the rules of the road by studying virtual traffic on video games such as Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V). But there's a catch: computers need hundreds of thousands of laboriously labelled images, showing where vehicles begin and end, to make them expert vehicle recognisers. "I thought, 'this is just so realistic that it would be a perfect simulation of the real world'" This isn't the first time a research group has used video games to train AI, says German Ros at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain. "We see AI being trained on images from similar locations, at similar times of day, under similar weather conditions, and then tested under similar conditions," says Ros.
It's hard to tell that the car has been kitted out with the latest driverless control systems by Oxbotica, a spinout company from the Oxford Mobile Robotics Group. As the pod embarks, it accelerates up to speeds of 8 kilometres an hour (we are in a pedestrian zone) and an on-board computer controls the steering wheel to avoid hitting any obstacles. "We're ready for the public right now," says Paul Newman, director of the Oxford Mobile Robotics Group. MIT spinout company nuTonomy started testing driverless taxis in Singapore this summer, and Uber started field tests in Pittsburgh last month.
"The maps need to be there for the autonomous cars to be able to do what they need to do" Driverless cars carry many different kinds of sensors – including cameras, lidar and radar – but they are not capable of fully understanding what they see. Because of this, driverless cars need highly detailed 3D maps of the roads they are to navigate. At the moment, the driverless cars that Uber is testing in Pittsburgh cannot run on Ford's map in Michigan, for example. These millions of vehicles won't be autonomous themselves, but will gather the data needed for Toyota to build its own maps.
"When you say'driverless cars', people expect driverless cars. "When you say'driverless cars', people expect driverless cars," Merat says. In the US, Joshua Brown was allegedly watching a DVD when his vehicle crashed in autopilot mode, killing him. Because of the lack of clarity, Merat thinks some car-makers will wait until vehicles can be fully automated, without any human input whatsoever.
The first ever death in an autonomous car happened in May this year, the US road safety administration revealed yesterday. In a press release, Tesla said the incident was a tragic loss, but noted that it was the first fatality in 130 million miles of Autopilot driving. "There will be questions as to why these semi-autonomous driving features are allowed in beta testing mode into consumers' hands, and whether they have been adequately developed and certified before being added as an option in vehicles – even with the disclaimers which drivers have to accept before activating the feature," he says. Instead, the software will run in the background, jumping in to prevent accidents that come from human error.
Ultimately, data gathered from guardian angel systems will help build cars that can drive as chauffeurs on any road. "You can imagine completely different forms, but you probably can't have a car 4 metres wide and 1 metre long," says Dominique Taffin at Yanfeng Automotive Interiors, Cologne, Germany. "If you look at what a full autonomous experience would be, it offers many more possibilities of what a car's interior can be," says Dominique Taffin at Yanfeng Automotive Interiors, one the world's leading suppliers of car interiors, such as the panelling and instruments that adorn the inside of a vehicle. Instead of focusing on making cars autonomous, increased automation behind public transport services is easing our movement through the world in other ways.