Personal Safety

How Does A Self-Driving Car Work? Safety, Legality, Autopilot & More

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A man sitting in the driver's seat of a self driving car with hands off the steering wheel wearing suit with a blurry street scene
The future is close at hand, or rather, out of your hands, when it comes to self-driving cars.

It’s both an exciting and daunting prospect. You may be wondering how does a self-driving car work? And can you trust a self-driving car (also called an autonomous car) to get you to your destination accident-free? Read on to find out about self-driving technology, which companies are on the move, and where the state of autonomous cars stands today and down the road.

How Does A Self-Driving Car Work?

Designs vary by company, but most self-driving systems create an ongoing internal map of their surroundings using a variety of sensors, like radar, laser beams, and sonar. The main computer’s software processes the data from the sensors and transmits instructions to the car’s actuators, which control steering, acceleration, and braking. The software uses advanced coding, algorithms, and predictive modeling to avoid and navigate obstacles on the road and to follow traffic rules. These systems also use smart object recognition to distinguish between a bicycle and a pedestrian, for example.

So far, several prototypes have been rolled out. Uber self-driving cars, for example, use sixty-four laser beams and other sensors to build their internal maps. And at different stages of development, the Google autonomous car has used radar, sonar, lasers, and high-powered cameras.

Driverless Car Companies: Who’s In The Lead?

The race for fully autonomous cars is on! Most of the big-name car companies, like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Ford, and Honda, have self-driving technology in the works through their own labs and partnerships with tech companies like Google, Apple, Uber, and others. Waymo (formerly Google self-driving cars) is a subsidiary of the parent company Alphabet that focuses on self-driving technology.

According to the CDC, there are 1.35 million deaths worldwide due to vehicle crashes yearly, and a study by the Department of Transportation found that 94% of crashes involve human error. Their Waymo One ride-hailing technology (think Uber and Lyft) is now available in San Fransisco, CA, and Phoenix, AZ.

For various reasons, including regulatory approval, completely self-driving cars aren’t ready for the commercial market just yet — they’re likely still a couple of years down the road. But, in the meantime, many car companies are implementing autopilot systems that incorporate some of the self-driving car technology we described above.

What Cars Have Autopilot?

There are several cars with autopilot technology now available if you can’t wait for fully autonomous cars to hit the market.

  • Tesla currently offers the most advanced autopilot system. All of its new cars (Model 3, S, X, and Y) include 360-degree cameras, ultrasonic sensors, an enhanced radar sensor, and a powerful onboard computer system. And the company is rolling out its software in incremental stages.
  • The Mercedes E-class Series offers an optional Intelligent Drive Driving Assistant package, which includes semi-autonomous highway and city driving, autonomous braking, and assistance with evasive maneuvers.
  • The BMW 7-Series offers an optional autopilot system created by MobilEye, which uses a forward-facing camera and other sensors to scan the road ahead for traffic lanes, speed signs, obstacles, and more. This car can even remotely park itself!

There are over a hundred models of cars that offer adaptive cruise control and lane-centering steering. But we don’t consider those true autopilot technology.

Watch Today’s Autopilot In Action

Check out the video below by tech company Nvidia demonstrating their automated computing system on the road. Nvidia Drive’s PX 2 is a powerful, open AI car computing platform for use in automated and autonomous vehicles. Tesla incorporates Nvidia Drive PX 2 system in all of its new vehicles.

What Can We Expect Down The Road?

Many experts predict that fully autonomous cars will become the norm in a matter of decades. In fact, researchers project that fully autonomous cars will account for more than 15 percent of all vehicles sold in 2030. What comes next? A “Back to the Future” DeLorean that offers time travel? The future is closer than you might think!

Best Self-Driving Cars

Self-driving, autonomous car technology is here to stay. Check out our picks for the best self-driving cars available today.

Sally Jones

While attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s graduate school for journalism and public relations, Sally began a long career researching and writing about hard-to-understand topics, such as insurance and finance. Her additional experience in marketing, fundraising, public relations and financial planning at various foundations and nonprofit organizations over the years has given her the practical tools to inform consumers about making the smartest business and personal financial decisions. Her work has appeared in many notable media outlets, including The Washington Post, Entrepreneur, People, Forbes, Huffington Post, and more. Speaking of smart living — growing up in the (at-the-time) per-capita murder capital of the U.S. (Richmond, VA) taught her a thing or two about the need for personal and home safety. Sally stays on top of all the latest gadgets and services to protect her and her teenage daughters from potential predators and thieves. And she brings this knowledge to every article she writes.

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