Another of Google's self-driving vehicles. [Flickr.Com Creative Commons Photo by Erik Loenroth]

Another of Google’s self-driving vehicles. [Flickr.Com Creative Commons Photo by Erik Loenroth]

The hottest new trend in automotive circles is self-driving cars: vehicles that can operate themselves without having to be controlled manually by a human.

Although there are no completely driverless models on the open market today,
a handful of manufacturers are currently working hard to bring them into the
mainstream. The past year saw considerable activity in the field, so let’s take a
moment to go over the most significant news in self-driving technology in 2015.

Tesla software upgrade
In October, Tesla Motors (released a software update) for its Model S line of sedans, adding what it calls Autopilot features to cars that are already on the road. Although the functionality is limited and is intended to be used only in certain road conditions, it serves as a kind of sneak preview of what a fully autonomous vehicle would look like. The fact that no new hardware needed to be installed to enable the over-the-air upgrade may usher in a new way of doing things for the automotive industry as a whole.

Samsung and Baidu enter game
Many companies, even those that seem centered on industries unrelated to automobiles, are beginning to toy with this newfangled tech. Electronics giant Samsung has indicated that it will be building components for these exciting vehicles rather than producing a whole car by itself. Chinese search giant Baidu is meanwhile testing self-driving automobiles that will be used as a form of public transportation. With China’s ongoing efforts to address environmental problems, these self-driving cars could be a vital
solution.

Ohio Gas
Ohio Gas has found that transportation is responsible for 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, so Baidu and Samsung’s versions of autonomous vehicles could potentially slow down these emissions as they are more than likely to be electric than oil and gas-powered, and because more autonomous fleet vehicles would waste less fuel stuck in traffic or driving inefficient routes. Apple and Uber have also entered this space, but details on their projects are rather scarce and consist mostly of ill-informed speculation.



Cars that communicate with pedestrians
Google, which is perhaps the current leader in driverless development, has filed a
patent detailing ways in which its vehicles might be able to talk with the public at
large. Through the use of gesticulating robotic arms, electronic signs and other
signaling devices, the cars could interact with nearby humans. One of the problems of the self-driving paradigm is that the complex system of gestures, nods and other non-verbal communication techniques that humans use every day is unavailable to computers. Google seems to be hard at work in remedying this concern.

Self-driving jobs
While cars that drive themselves may put certain categories of workers – like cab drivers and valets – out of jobs, the creation of these vehicles causes demand for other employees. Tesla Motors is hiring more than 1,600 new workers around the world, excluding those that will be needed when its state-of-the-art Gigafactory opens up in Nevada in a couple of years. Google, meanwhile, has many job listings on its “careers” website that relate to the Self-Driving Car project. Indeed, both firms have been competing for the same employees and poaching from each other’s talent pools.

Ford begins testing at mcity
Mcity is a “fake” urban environment created by the University of Michigan, and it
covers 32 acres. There are streets, sidewalks, stoplights, lane markings and all the
other elements you would expect to find in an urban setting, apart from pedestrians. Ford became the first automaker to begin testing its autonomous models on the streets of Mcity about a month ago. This will allow it to experiment with different operating parameters for varying surface materials – concrete, asphalt, dirt, etc. Ford can also try out difficult maneuvers, like running red lights, driving in reverse and making three-point turns, that would be inadvisable or dangerous to perform in real world settings.

New crash test rules
In September, the federal government announced a set of changes to the safety ratings it issues to cars based upon crash test results. It will become more difficult to achieve a five-star rating, but bonuses will be awarded for the inclusion of automated features, like automatic emergency braking and collision warnings. This allows the Department of Transportation to push for the deployment of certain driverless technologies without positively requiring their inclusion within all new cars. Such updates and regulatory changes will be essential in bringing self-driving automobiles to the masses.

As we look forward to 2016, we can expect many improvements to the current state of the industry. This includes an expansion of Tesla’s automated features and further refinement of Google’s fleet, which is already being tested on public roads. At this rate, it’s no longer just speculation to say that we may see self-driving and autonomous cars begin to dominate the streets in just a few short years.

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