The self driving car

A great new technology that is coming are the self driving cars.

Darpa has issued a challenge providing 2 million dollars for the first car that could navigate a track in the dessert. In 2005 a robotic car developed by the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory completed this track for the first time.

The car has completed over 500 000 km accident-free. Ironically, the car actually had 2 accidents. One while driven by a human, the other when a car ran into it while it stopped at a traffic light. For the moment the car can not legally drive in most places, but as of September 2012 they are allowed in 3 U.S. states (Nevada, Florida and California). [1]

VisLab conceived a challenge in which 4 cars drove autonomously a 15 000 mile trip from Italy to China. The first vehicle had some (planned) human intervention because there were no maps of parts of the trip. The 3 other vehicles used the interventions as pointers to complete the trip completely by themselves. An other interesting note is that all vehicles were completely electric. [2]

General Motors developed an electric urban vehicle that can drive autonomously. A nice feature is that it can come to you when called by phone. [3]

Picture of EN-V


While these cars are not available on the market today, some of the technology used in these cars is already used in commercial available cars today.

Here is an overview of the technologies already on the market:

Autonomous cruise control

This is a cruise control that maintains a safe distance from other vehicles. The main sensor used for this technology can be either a radar or a laser based sensor. As added bonus, the system can be used to send a warning signal if a collision is likely to occur, even when the cruise control is not activated.

It can be improved with GPS to predict the response from other vehicles (I.e.: an exit ahead). It can also be benefit from looking at the turn signals of the cars in front of it.

An other improvement would be Cooperative Adaptive Cruise Control. Here, information is passed from other cars in the neighbourhood to improve the driving experience. It could be very beneficial for the road capacity. Standardisation of the information protocol is needed for this however, and there are at the moment no plans for doing this.

Toyota was the first car manufacturer that had implemented this (in 1997). [4]

Hill descent control

This is related to cruise control. In traditional cruise control, only the gas is steered. In that case the car will still accelerate when going downhill by just the gravity pulling the car down. Hill descent control will improve the cruise control by applying the breaks when needed. [5]

Lane departure warning system

This system warns the driver if he is leaving his lane, without using his turn signals. It can be extended by taking action to keep the car on its lane.

The used sensors can be video in the visual spectrum, laser or infra-red sensors.

Nissan was the first to implement this system in 2001. [6]

Blind spot information system

As the name suggests, this system will give a warning if there is danger of collision with something in the blind spot of the read mirrors. It was first used only when a car entered the blind spot when changing lanes, but newer systems also warn for fast approaching vehicles. [7]

The first implemented system was done by Volvo in 2006. [8]

Collision avoidance system

This is a more complex system. It actually can consist of some of the parts described earlier.

It isn’t a fixed set of systems, but more of a collection of systems that is assembled by the manufacturer to provide this service. Next to the previous systems, it could monitor traffic lights, the current weather and weather and traffic predictions. It doesn’t only have be used as a warning system, but it can actively prevent the collision or take measures to reduce the severity of the damage. For instance, for preventing a collision, it could break, or steer. For reducing the damage it could change the seat position, tension of the seat belts and reposition the head rests. [9]

As it is not a finely defined system, it is hard to put a name on the first company that implemented it.

Intelligent speed adaptation

This is not to be confused with cruise control or a manual speed limitation. The intelligent speed adaptation system uses data of the local road, to alert drivers that they are exceeding the speed limit or to limit the speed of the car itself. It can get its data from a map and GPS, radio beacons along the road or optical recognition of speed signs.

As far as could be found, there are no car manufacturers that give this option in their commercial cars. There are however passive systems (giving only a warning sign) that are included in gps systems. SpeedShield is an active system that can be installed in a car to actively prevent the car from going too fast. [10]

Automotive night vision

Some high-end cars have an optional night vision system. This improves the visibility under poor lighting conditions by displaying an alternative view of what is in front of the car. It can be displayed on the dashboard or in the wind shield via head-up display and the image can be captured by actively sending infra-red light and capturing it, or by passively capturing the infra-red emitted by heat.

The first manufacturer to implement some kind of night vision was General Motors in 2000. [11]

Adaptive light control

This system can regulate the intensity and orientation of the front lights. The simplest of these systems which only switched between high beam and normal lights are found back as early as the 1950s by General Motors. They worked by detecting the headlights of upcoming cars, but had a lot of problems with discerning headlights from street lamps and road sign reflections.

The most advanced systems today alter the the orientation of the lights by anticipating the changes in terrain based on GPS data. [12]

Intelligent parking assist systems

These systems help parking or even completely autonomous park the car by itself. In most cases the driver has to put the car next to the parking spot and mark the place the car should be parked on a display. The system works uses the parking sensors that are common in a lot of modern cars and drives the electric power steering of the car. Shifting the gear still seems to be done manually.

The first version of this system was deployed by Toyota in 2003. [13]

Traffic sign recognition

As input for other systems, it can be useful to read the signs along the roads. The intelligent speed adaptation system discussed earlier can make use of this feature. Current systems do not read all the signs however. For the moment only the speed limits and overtaking restrictions are detected. They rely on more advanced systems like computer vision.

BMW was the first to implement this in 2008. [14]

Driver drowsiness detection

These systems learn driver patterns and try to detect when a driver is becoming drowsy. The system monitors lane deviations and abnormal steering behaviour and will alert the driver if it detects any. [15]

Several car manufacturers implement these since 2010.

Vehicular communication systems

This is actually not really on the market yet. But because of the possibilities it is included in the list.

As touched in the autonomous cruise control communication between cars can be used to improve the road capacity. This is not the only advantage of vehicular communication. The communication can occur between the vehicles as well as between vehicles and road side beacons.The communication can thus be used to transmit changed traffic situations, automatically determine toll and parking prices. It can also increase the safety by communicating sudden stops and accidents. [16]


A lot of the systems needed for an autonomous car are already on the market. Would you like to have a car that you just can sit in without having to drive it? Or wouldn’t you trust something you don’t have control over?


















  1. 20/02/2013 at 16:35

    I think in the future these cars will indeed be the standard because it can become very safe since no human errors can be made anymore and technology can be optimized (of course there can be errors but the frequency will be much lower than human accidents). If I like it or if I would trust it is a different question I think. First of all I like to drive so it would be stupid to loose this happy moment. But I also think it can be very restful in some situations when you are in a hurry. Moreover especially for these occasions you can trust this automatic car more then yourself.

  2. 24/02/2013 at 16:13

    I would like to have such a car! It’s very useful on long routes, especially if you go to UK with your own car. Because you have to drive on the left hand side, an automatic car will give a great solution.
    But on the other hand, if the ‘driver’ has no control over the car, and if an accident is produced, who’s cause will it be then? The car itself? who will be then punished?

    • 26/02/2013 at 13:21

      The accountability is indeed an important issue. I’m not sure what the current rules are in the states where self-driving cars are allowed. It it still required that someone is behind the wheel, so it wouldn’t surprise me if that person will be the one responsible.

      On the other hand, if you expect your car to drive itself, you probably will react more slowly, so part of the responsibility will implicitly be moved to the manufacturer. It seems logical that if you claim to sell a car that drives itself, that you will have responsibility for that. But on the other hand, if you are selling a product, you would like to have as little responsibility as possible.

      If you were a manufacturer, would you try to develop a self driving car if you know you will be responsible for the accidents it causes?

      • 26/02/2013 at 15:07

        As a manufacturer you know what the positive and negative consequences of your product will be. Actually as a manufacturer for a self driving car, you probably know that there will be in some cases accidents and that probably the blame will indirectly refer to the manufacturer. But for this circumstances the manufacturer is always armed at beforehand. This is just if you think pure at business level, but of course it is the responsibility of the manufacturer to produce such a car, where the chance of producing an accident is minim.

  3. xieaizhi
    28/02/2013 at 17:02

    I think not only cars should be intelligent but also the road itself. Internet of things is coming soon in a few decades. Until then we can connect all the stuffs together. Road can show its condition like traffic congestion, surface smooth or not etc. Our car can be more intelligent by using these information. Are you sacred if our society is like a big internet? Like movie Matrix?

  4. 01/03/2013 at 15:28

    I would not like having a car like that but I believe that in the future all cars will drive on themselves. I think the time this will take depends on the willingness of the people to trust on technology. When the people are ready this can be implemented in a decade I think.

  5. visualrecognition
    10/03/2013 at 15:13

    I think it costs a lot for that function. I just got my driving license last month. I can handle the parking by practicing a few times. It won’t take you half hour to park a car. But it’s another story if car can drive by itself.

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