17 Dec 2014

Assisted Driving

(Disclosure: I work for Google, but on nothing related to self-driving cars or Google Maps.)

Self-driving cars are a great idea, but they’ll take years to reach the market, and much longer to reach the lower end cars. And they won’t work in places with chaotic traffic, like Bangalore.

This set me thinking: is there something that will? Are there a limited set of capabilities from self-driving cars that can be implemented sooner and work everywhere, even on roads that haven’t been mapped, and in places with atrocious driving practices, like Bangalore? I’ll call this “assisted driving”, because that’s all this is — providing assistance to the driver, who still is the one driving the car, not the computer.

For example, could the car read and understand signs, like speed restrictions? Instead of you having to look out for these signs and remember what the last limit was, the car will do that for you. When you enter a 40km/hr zone, the car will automatically cut the throttle when you touch 40km/hr [1].

Speed limits are just one example. Another example is turn restrictions. If you try to make a turn where it’s prohibited, the car can detect that, either when you indicate the turn, or when you turn the wheel to make the turn, and tell you that it’s not permitted here.

Information about turn restrictions can come from the car reading the signs, or from Google Maps, which already tracks turn restrictions, one-way streets, etc.

When a traffic light turns red, the car can take responsibility for stopping. It can go further than a human driver and cut the throttle at exactly the right distance ahead of the junction that the car slowly coasts to a stop at the junction, without needing to use the brakes [2].

The car can also close the throttle if I’m tailgating the vehicle in front, again depending on the speed.

Turn-by-turn directions can also become smarter, and, after telling me to turn right, the turn indicator can automatically be turned on. Or, if I’m told to make a right turn at a certain point, and I accidentally turn on the indicator one junction before, the car can say, “Not here — at the next junction.”

The car can also tell me I need to refuel to make it to my destination, based on how much fuel I have in the tank.

Cars can turn on their lights when it gets dark, and the windscreen wipers when it starts to rain.

I’m sure there are more ideas than the ones here for how computers can assist you in driving. These are all low-hanging fruit compared to fully autonomous driving, and so can hopefully be deployed much sooner, without needing to map the roads for autonomous driving, and without relying on sane driving conditions like in the US. These may actually be more useful to the billions of people in emerging markets and developing countries, in the short term, like fully autonomous cars.

[1] This is purely optional. You can turn this off and speed, just as you can notice and then choose to ignore a posted sign limit. This isn’t about the computer being your nanny, but merely about helping you should you choose to make use of it.

[2] Using the brakes makes for a less smooth ride, and you waste energy pushing the car forward and then applying the brake. It’s better to cut the engine at precisely the right distance ahead of the junction that the car slowly loses speed and comes to a halt at precisely the right point. This depends on the speed of the car and the slope of the road and is hard to get right manually. Computers seem better suited to this task.

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