Cars of the future to be tested on public roads in the UK beginning January 2015.

Topics: Technology Our Future Skill Point: Yet  Already or Still

It seems like something out of the future: cars that can drive themselves with no help from human drivers. These machines are in testing or development stages by Google, Nissan, General Motors, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and other manufacturers in an effort to keep up with the rapidly advancing technologies. Even the Chinese search engine Baidu claims its researchers are in the early stages of development of a driverless car. The United Kingdom is opening up its roads to these driverless cars, and has invited cities to compete to host the first driverless cars on public roads.

You might be surprised to learn that three states in the U.S. already allow driverless cars on the roads, California, Nevada, and Florida. In fact, Google’s self-driving cars have already covered over 300,000 miles. They may even be the first to manufacture cars for the public in 2015, though their prototypes aren’t the most attractive vehicles on the road.

While we already have automated features in current car models, such as cruise control, automatic braking, and even self-parking functions, turning over control of the steering wheel and gas pedal is another matter entirely. Autopilot for airplanes has been in existence for quite some time, but there aren’t as many obstacles in the air as on land, so government entities and engineers must work together to form and test safety precautions, rules, and regulations.

For the time being, these driverless car models will still have fully functioning steering wheels, brakes, and acceleration, with the ability to turn the autopilot system on or off as desired. We haven’t reached full automation just yet.

Futuristic technologies that are being used and tested for driverless cars include:

  • Lidar – light detection and ranging
  • GPS – global-positioning system
  • Computer vision – cameras attached to cars

Lidar is similar to radar, but instead of using radio waves, it uses light. This system measures how lasers bounce off reflective surfaces, and in doing so it captures information about millions of tiny points surrounding the vehicle every second.

GPS functions just as the system works in your car. The maps are uploaded to the driverless cars and the computer navigates the roads using the precise GPS locations, as well as a computer system linked to things like red, yellow, and green traffic lights.

Computer vision systems might be the most practical but least plausible option on their own, but will likely complement other technologies. Cameras attached to vehicles link in to a software program that reads the images and warns the car of things like pedestrians, construction, potholes, and cyclists.

There’s no doubt that many sensors will be involved with driverless cars out on the open roads, and hiding these sensors will be one of the manufacturers’ major challenges. While safety is the number one priority, it’s safe to say that today’s consumer economy still values a sleek appearance and decent horsepower, which is one reason why it took so long for hybrids and electric cars to make it in the automobile industry.

At this point, driverless cars are still in prototype stages but with so many big companies working on driverless car technology, we may see them on the streets sooner than later.

Reading Comprehension

Driverless Cars Quiz


INTERMEDIATE: Would you feel comfortable owning a driverless car? In 200 words, give your opinion on the pros and cons of driverless cars, and make predictions about the future of automobile transportation.

ADVANCED: As driverless cars become more popular, responsibility for accidents and traffic violations will become more complicated. Discuss potential hurdles (parking laws, insurance, registration) in 200 words, and who might be responsible for them (manufacturers, owners, governments).