Alice H. Ramsey, standing beside her auto. Photo courtesy Library of Congress,

Adventures in Self Driving Cars, Part I

We envision the hands-free robot car as a machine that will drive us to a better life. In the not so distant future, we’ll be able to relax during tedious commutes or read as we run errands around town. The elderly and vision-impaired will have greater mobility, and the need for personal vehicles may be reduced.

The reality is that the revolution will start small.

In the quiet quarters of agriculture, semi-autonomous farm machinery has been available for over a decade. Called autosteer, the self-driving feature became available for tractors and other related types of machinery in the early 2000s, and has continued to evolve over time.

Autosteering Combine

Seeing a vehicle move without any hands guiding it is a novel experience. While an open field is not the same environment as a congested roadway, the technology has lessened the burden of manual oversight for machine operators and reduced cost for certain inputs due to the precision it affords. Autosteer is governed by RTK (Real Time Kinematic) satellite navigation. It can be used in conjunction with ground-based correction signal, as satellite drift over the course of day could lead to differences of several inches.

Autonomous cars require more feedback about the world around them. The first cars to offer more automated driving features use on-board sensors to assess the vehicle’s position in relation to other cars. Tesla notably introduced its Autopilot feature that relies on a combination of radar, cameras, and sonar to make more intelligent choices. Likewise, makers such as Mercedes, Subaru, and Honda, among others, are introducing features such as lane control, automated cruise control, and blind spot detection. Marketed with adjectives ranging from the inventive “distrionic” to the practical “sensing,” they all seem to promise a less stressful drive.

While these systems may reduce fatigue and improve safety, they are the first forays into a more complex concept. The automobiles of the early twentieth century seem primitive with their thirty-mile-an-hour speeds and carriage styling, but at the time, they appeared to be the harbinger of a new world. In the same way, we can apply this lens of history to the semi-automated cars being produced today. We might be waiting for robot car for a few more years, but the gears have changed.

Join me next time for Part II, in which I further explore the current state of semi-automated cars.

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