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Robot Drivers

In Robopocalypse, everyday technology rises up against us. Our cell phones know where we are, our social networks know who we trust, and domestic robots and appliances lurk in our homes. But at Zero Hour, the biggest threat to humankind comes from billions of self-driving automobiles throughout the world.

So, how real are self-driving cars?

When it comes to driving, humans have a terrible safety record. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), over 2.35 million people were injured in car accidents last year in the United States. On top of that, over 37,000 people were killed — and that’s the lowest number since 1961.

Clearly, we’re not very good at driving. Which is why robots have taken over.Clearly, we’re not very good at driving. Which is why robots have taken over.

Low level autonomous safety features have been around for decades. Antilock Brake Systems, which sense when a wheel is skidding and reduce brake pressure, were introduced way back in 1971. In 1997, General Motors introduced an Electronic Stability Control system that can sense the difference between the direction a car is going and the angle of the steering wheel and then pump the brakes to keep the car on course. These safety features are so commonplace today that federal legislation requires they be installed on all new cars, along with airbags and seatbelts.

And next-gen autonomy is here. The 2010 Ford Flex boasts "Active Park Assist" — target a spot and the car uses ultrasonic range finders to park itself. The latest Toyota Prius has a "Lane Keep Assist" system which uses a camera to detect lane markers and steers the car toward the center of the lane. And the Honda Accord comes standard with "Adaptive Cruise Control," which uses a radar pulse to detect other vehicles and then change speed to maintain a safe following distance.

Modern cars can steer, brake, and accelerate by themselves.Modern cars can steer, brake, and accelerate by themselves. And prototype cars are capable of the whole shebang. In 2007, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sponsored the Urban Challenge, in which corporate-sponsored teams from all over the nation retro-fitted regular cars with sensors and artificial intelligence, transforming them into fully autonomous ground vehicles. Eleven finalists unleashed their driverless cars on a peaceful mock city where they proved capable of obeying traffic signals while merging, passing, and parking.

The current set of semi-autonomous safety features will likely combine into something more. For example, a car could use Lane Keep Assist and Adaptive Cruise Control together to drive by itself under highway conditions — sticking to one lane and not hitting the car in front. Expect even more safety capabilities in the future (and expect them to be required by law).

As the technology matures, human drivers have to do less and less. Remember that during Zero Hour, when your new smart car might decide to park itself in your living room.

÷ ÷ ÷

Daniel H. Wilson was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and earned a B.S. in computer science from the University of Tulsa and a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He is the author of Robogenesis, Robopocalypse, Amped, How to Survive a Robot Uprising, Where's My Jetpack?, How to Build a Robot Army, The Mad Scientist Hall of Fame, and Bro-Jitsu: The Martial Art of Sibling Smackdown.

Books mentioned in this post

Daniel H. Wilson is the author of Robogenesis

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