Whether you drive a super-high-tech Lexus coupe or an everyday rugged pickup like a Honda Ridgeline, modern cars are always working to keep us safe. One of the primary ways they do this is through the use of geospatial data (GIS). GPS has been used for quite some time now to help us navigate and determine the best and quickest route to our destinations, but this is no longer just about improving fuel economy or time management. Now, our vehicles keep track of a lot of other factors for a variety of reasons.
Some advanced driver-assistance technologies use sonar, GIS, and inter-vehicle communication to keep track of relative positions on the road to help avoid accidental collisions. But, while most of the more affordable brands use this simply for safety purposes, others are pursuing an entirely different line of inquiry, which could very well change the face of personal and public transportation across the globe. This is, of course, autonomous driving. Here is a quick list of some of the brands and models that have almost acquired this holy grail in the USA:
- Tesla Model S
- Volvo XC60
- BMW X7
- Mercedes-Benz S-Class
- Cadillac CT6
- Infiniti QX50
This kind of technology is going to be a game-changer, not just within the automotive landscape, but also along the legal and socio-economic axes. Assuming it proves to be wholly reliable, there is little reason that it should not be adapted to serve other forms of transport, upgrading planes with an autopilot that can make course corrections or possibly even land unassisted. Adapting such fully automated configurations to trains and boats should be somewhat easier, though.
Keeping up in a fast-paced world
In any situation where self-driving is involved, there needs to be an extensive collection of geospatial data, meaning, location, environment, attributes, and temporal information. How this information is collected is also important, because a stringent series of quality control checkpoints will be necessary to ensure accuracy, since it is the automaker and software developers who will be held accountable in the event of an accident.
A more challenging aspect of this approach is that the information needs to be disseminated and stored locally on each vehicle, since it is unrealistic to expect that a wireless or satellite connection will always be available, and the size of onboard tech components needs to be considered. Many companies have already done the legwork in mapping out many areas of the world – just take a look at Google streetview – so it is just a matter of passing that information along to car manufacturers.
However, the urban landscape is constantly evolving and we cannot be expected to take our vehicles in for regular updates. To this end, over-the-air updates (OTAs) have become more popular. The USA-based electric vehicle company, Tesla, was the first to pilot the system, but now global competitors like BMW and Toyota are jumping on the bandwagon, too. Apart from allowing minor updates to stored maps, this also allows the automakers to install system upgrades or activate certain built-in features that maybe were not included as part of the shopper’s original purchase. Consider tweaks to engine and performance, resulting in improved fuel economy. This could even include autonomous driving applications or other safety features that rely on GIS.
A new world order
As with any new and disruptive technology, GIS-assisted autonomous driving systems will need to be regulated. Just as we do not allow individuals to drive without a permit, it would be reckless to allow car companies to install self-driving in a car without rigorous testing to make sure it is entirely safe. This is especially important on modes of public transportation such as buses. However, if such vehicles do become the norm, it is not unreasonable to picture a future where anyone is allowed to use an autonomous vehicle, even if they do not know how to drive it manually.
We could be looking at a situation where our children are sitting in the passenger seat of driverless cabs traveling to or from school, or where inebriated partygoers are passed out in the back seat of a self-driving car that needs to get them home safely and ensure they make it past the front door. Such individuals cannot be held culpable for any accidents that may occur, and the onus of their safety is upon the maker of the vehicle they are using. Thus, laws will have to review current policies and adapt to ensure public and property safety.
Exactly how this will all play out is anyone’s guess, but it is futile to struggle against the indomitable tide of progress. All we can do is ensure that we stay informed about how much the technologies we rely on during our daily lives actually advance so that we know how to proceed when they fail us.