Home >Opinion >Online-views >Apple’s Project Titan: Why driverless cars make immense sense
File photo. Google’s self-driving car processes both map and sensor information to determine its location. The car knows what street it’s on and which lane it’s in. Photo: Getty Images/AFP
File photo. Google’s self-driving car processes both map and sensor information to determine its location. The car knows what street it’s on and which lane it’s in. Photo: Getty Images/AFP

Apple’s Project Titan: Why driverless cars make immense sense

Driverless cars hold out the promise of solving the world's traffic jams and accidents

Mumbai: They have been hacked and looked at with suspicion by insurers and policy makers even as they hold out the promise of solving the world’s traffic jams and accidents, a majority of which occur due to human error.

Whatever your current perception about them, driverless cars fascinate everyone and will be navigating our roads in the future, which explains the strong buzz around Project Titan—Apple Inc.’s rumoured self-driving electric car project that has been in the news on and off for almost a year.

On 14 August, The Guardian reported that Apple “is building a self-driving car in Silicon Valley, and is scouting for secure locations in the San Francisco Bay area to test it".

The paper said it has documents, obtained under a public records act request, as proof but added that Apple declined to comment.

A truly driverless, or fully autonomous, vehicle would imply that a driver need not be present. It would also not have a steering wheel or pedal, a thought that can make most of us very uncomfortable.

Software, GPS (global positioning system) and sensors would instead handle the driving. Such vehicles, say experts, may take at least another five years before they arrive on public roads, even though a prototype like Google Inc.’s self-driving car that is part of its Google X project, and now a part of Alphabet Inc., has run nearly 1 million miles with “minor" accidents.

Google started testing its self-driving technology with the Toyota Prius on freeways in California way back in 2009. But the technology is much older, as Google itself points out on its website. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, for instance, visitors were presented a vision of automated highways. In the mid 2000s, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) organized the Grand Challenges where teams gathered to compete with self-driving vehicles.

Google’s self-driving car processes both map and sensor information to determine its location. The car knows what street it’s on and which lane it’s in.

Sensors help detect objects, and the software classifies them based on their size, shape and movement pattern. The software, then, chooses a safe speed and trajectory for the car. Google is also working toward vehicles that take you where you want to go at the push of a button.

The Google cars—Toyota Prius, Audi TT, and Lexus RX450h—also use a laser technology called Lidar that uses light to reflect from objects and create a three-dimensional image of the world around it. Google has also partnered with automakers like Roush Enterprises, Bosch, Continental, FRIMO, LG Electronics, Prefix, and ZF Lenksysteme to develop its own custom vehicle.

In its July report, Google notes that its driverless prototype car seems to be getting hit by a lot of drivers who are distracted and not paying attention to the road. Driving, the report explains, is actually really complex. A person driving at a speed of 30 miles per hour (48 km per hour) sees an average of 1,320 pieces of information every minute. Cellphones are the most common distractors.

Since the company began testing the self-driving car six years ago, it has self-driven over 1 million miles and accumulated the equivalent of 75 years of driving experience on the road (based on a typical American adult driving about 13,000 miles per year). The speed, though, is capped at 25 mph (or 40 kmph).

The cars pause 1.5 seconds after the light turns green at an intersection because many accidents happen during this time. And currently, the prototypes have safety drivers aboard with temporary controls that allow them to take over driving if needed.

In its July report, Google said 23 self-driving cars “have been involved in 14 minor traffic accidents on public roads...(but) our vehicles have not caused any accidents while in self-driving mode".

Auto makers such as Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Nissan, Volvo and Audi have all announced plans to sell cars, with advanced automation features that are able to self-drive on highways or park themselves, within a decade. Besides, there are many cars available with technologies like anti-lock brakes, adaptive cruise control (maintains a safe distance from other vehicles) or automated parking.

By 2018, Elon Musk expects Tesla Motors to have developed mature serial production version of fully self-driving cars, where the driver can fall asleep.

On 5 September 2012, the IEEE—an organization dedicated to advancing technology—forecast that autonomous vehicles will account for up to 75% of cars on the road by 2040. The increased use of driverless cars will be the catalyst for transforming vehicular travel over the next 28 years, sparking dramatic changes in intersections, traffic flows, highways and even drivers’ licences, the note said.

Autonomous vehicles, it added, will also make car sharing programs more popular. They will arrive, take you to your destination and then be ready for the next user.

To be sure, there are grave security concerns of hackers taking over connected vehicles, as the 21 August article in Wired demonstrated. Besides, insurers will have to devise ways of providing cover for a driverless vehicle. And policy makers also have to keep pace with the advent of driverless cars.

Many countries are signatories to the Vienna Convention on road traffic that requires “every moving vehicle or combination of vehicles" to “have a driver" and that “‘every driver shall at all times, be able to control his vehicle". The Convention is in the process of being amended to allow a car to drive itself so long as the system can be overridden or switched off by the driver.

In Europe, for instance, cities in Belgium, France, Italy and the UK (which has signed but not ratified the Vienna Convention) are planning to operate transport systems for driverless cars. Besides, countries like the US, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Spain have already allowed testing of robotic cars in traffic.

The UK government, on its part, is in the process of developing a “light touch non-regulatory approach to the testing and development of these technologies through the use of a Code of Practice", it says in a February 2015 document titled ‘The Pathway to Driverless Cars’. The government envisages that national legislation can be amended by 2017 and hopes to finalise amendments to international regulations by the end of 2018.

In India, cars are being automated to some extent with Google’s Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay that features Siri voice control and works with the car’s controls and Apple Maps. Connected vehicles use operating systems like QNX from QNX Software Systems Ltd—a subsidiary of BlackBerry Ltd, Windows Embedded from Microsoft Corp besides a variant of Linux.

In the long term, a driverless car can also upset many existing business models. What, for instance, does it mean for taxi-booking apps like Uber, Ola Cabs and TaxiForSure?

Uber, at least, appears to be readying itself. On 2 February, Uber said it will partner the Carnegie Mellon University to develop robotic means for “safe, reliable transportation to everyone, everywhere", which implies self-driving cars.

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