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Autonomous Vehicles

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An autonomous vehicle developed by Volkswagen
An autonomous vehicle developed by Volkswagen

Autonomous vehicles, otherwise known as self-driving cars or robotic cars, are capable of fulfilling the transportation capabilities of the traditional car. Autonomous vehicles cover the range of both self-driving cars as well as motorcycles. However, most of today’s current research is focused on the development on self-driving cars. A human may choose the destination, but the ultimate goals is that the user will not have to perform any mechanical operation of the vehicle to reach the destination[1].

The primary way that autonomous vehicles sense the world is through radar, lidar, GPS, and computer vision. Most of the time, autonomous vehicles use a combination of all of these senses to build a virtual world around the vehicle so that it can navigate between different points.



With autonomous vehicles, there are many benefits that are to be expected which could solve many of today’s road usage problems:

  • Fewer traffic collisions due to decreased reaction times compared to human drivers[2]
  • Increased roadway traffic due to smaller safety gaps needed[2][3]
  • Higher speed limits due to decreased reaction times compared to human drivers
  • Fewer vehicular accidents due to the removal of human error
  • Elimination of parking scarcity as cars could drop off passengers and park far away and return to pick up passengers when necessary[3]


One of the first historical examples of the autonomous vehicles was in the 1939 World’s Fair by General Motors. General Motors had an exhibit which depicted electric cars that were powered by circuitry in the roadway and ultimately controlled by radio. After that point, there was very little in terms of development for the autonomous vehicle.

It wasn’t until 1980’s until there was further development for creating autonomous vehicles. The first example of an autonomous vehicle was designed by Ernst Dickmanns at the Bundeswehr University Munich in Munich, Germany which was driven on streets without traffic. DARPA began funding autonomous vehicle development.

In 1994, the twin robot vehicles of VaMP and Vita-2 of Daimler-Benz and Ernst Dickmanns of UniBwM drove over 1000 kilometers on a Paris three-lane highway in standard traffic. This was done however semi-autonomously with human inteventions but the premise behind autonomous vehicles driving in normal traffic was demonstrated. One year later, Dickmanns re-engineered the autonomous vehicles and performed a 1600 km trip from Munich, Bavaria to Copenhagen, Denmark and back using 95% autonomous driving. That same year, Carnegie Mellon University Navlab project achieved a 98.2% autonomous driving on a 3100 mile trip across America. With the demonstrated viability of a partially autonomous vehicle, the challenge became creating a completely autonomous vehicle that required no human intervention[4].

Many automotive manufactures such as General Motors, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Volvo, and Cadillac have begun testing autonomous vehicles.

Current Development

The Google self-driving car in action
The Google self-driving car in action
One of the prime developers of autonomous vehicles in the United States is Google. They have created a fleet of autonomous vehicles known as the Google driverless car that have driven over 300,000 km as of August 2012. The Google driverless cars still require a person to be sitting in the car and allow for the user to override steering and braking functions of the vehicle for safety reason.

There are no autonomous vehicles available to the public but there are many features on the market right now that take away human interaction when driving. Some of these features include adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning systems, blind spot detection, self-parking assistance, and automatic braking systems.

Features of Modern Cars

There are many features of modern cars that allow for partial autonomous control of the vehicle.

  • Adaptive cruise control is used to set cruise control at a certain speed and the cruise control will automatically adjust the speed of the car if a slower car pulls in front of the car using the adaptive cruise control[5][6].
    A diagram demonstrating how adaptive cruise control works
    A diagram demonstrating how adaptive cruise control works
  • Lane departure warning systems send a signal to the driver of the car using vibration of the steering wheel or with visual cues when it is sensed that the vehicle is changing lanes unexpectedly. This is especially useful if the driver is distracted or is having trouble staying awake[5].
  • Blind spot detection uses sonar to detect the presence of other vehicles in the blind spot of the car. It then sends visual cues to the driver to warn the driver if there is a car present in the blind spot of the car[5][7].
  • Self-parking assistance is used to park cars in parking spaces without the use of human interaction. This can be used in parallel, diagonal, and straight parking spaces[8].
  • Automatic braking systems work through the use of sonar and sense if there is a stationary object in front of the moving vehicle. If it is sensed that there is the potential for an imminent collision, the brakes of the car will be automatically applied to avoid the collision[5][9].


One of the main challenges on current development is being able to navigate dynamic environments. This ranges from avoiding other cars and pedestrians to changing environmental conditions. Currently, autonomous vehicles have very few challenges when navigating static environments. With the introduction of dynamic environments, the vehicle has to keep track of where objects are, what direction they are moving, the speed that they are moving, as well as making predictions about where they will be in the future.

Legislation has also presented many challenges as autonomous vehicles are illegal on most public roads. In June 2011, Nevada was the first jurisdiction in the world where autonomous vehicles were allowed to legally operate on public roads[10]. In September 2012, California Governor, Jerry Brown signed a bill allowing the legalization of driverless cars in California[11]. Currently, Florida, Hawaii, and Oklahoma are considering legalizing the use of autonomous vehicles.


  1. [1] What we’re driving at.
  2. 2.0 2.1 [2] Can I See Your License, Registration and C.P.U.?
  3. 3.0 3.1 [3] Future car focus: Robot cars
  4. [4] No Hands America
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 [5] Mercedes safety features
  6. [6] Audi Adaptive Cruise Control
  7. [7] Audi Side-Assist Technology
  8. [8] Lexus Self-Parking Car Video and Review
  9. [9] Volvo XC60 Automatic Brakes Could Reduce Crashes
  10. [10] Autonomous vehicle bill in Neveda
  11. [11] Autonomous vehicle bill in California