Driverless technology - how it works

Driverless cars are quickly changing from a futuristic, novelty idea into a genuine feature of the present.

And now with governments, major car manufacturers and tech giants pumping enormous amounts of money into research projects, it seems like autonomous vehicles are set to shape the future of the motoring industry in a very real way. 

Whilst we’ll surely see more and more autonomous vehicles being tested on British roads in the very near future, many people will still be wondering how driverless cars work. That’s why we've decided to break down some of the key technological aspects, along with the pros and cons, of self-driving cars.

Driverless Car Technology

Driverless car technology varies by manufacturer, but here are some of the more common features, particularly for Waymo (previously known as the Google’s Self-Driving Car Project).

Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) sensors, typically mounted on the roof, beams laser light to map the car’s surroundings in order to detect road edges and lane markings

  • Radar sensors are used to monitor the presence of nearby vehicles and the speed they are travelling at to avoid collision
  • Video camera technology also tracks nearby obstacles and pedestrians, whilst also identifying road signs and traffic lights
  • Ultrasonic sensors located on the wheels help detect the positions of curbs and other vehicles when parking and manoeuvring
  • A central computer system processes data collected from the above features to accurately determine the steering, acceleration and braking

The advantages of self-driving cars

The main reason why the motor industry is steering in the direction of autonomous transport is because, if perfected, the benefits will be ground-breaking. Drastic reductions in road traffic accidents and casualties caused by human error would likely be the greatest single benefit. Recent prototypes can now recognise and react to more complicated scenarios such as roadworks, broken down vehicles and sharing busy roads with cyclists.

Additionally, driverless cars will be able to optimise the use of road space to ease congestion. And as well as being electronically powered, cloud-based internet connectivity will enable self-driving cars to foresee traffic hotspots to then optimise the car’s route and speed for greener driving.

The disadvantages of self-driving cars

In spite of the above pros, the main con of self-driving vehicles is that they aren't perfect yet, and they won’t be for some time.

Firstly, existing prototypes require a qualified driver to be in the car in order to take control if necessary. So there is a long way to go before these cars genuinely benefit those who are unable to drive.

Secondly, big question marks remain over the safety of driverless cars, especially after a Google driverless car was involved in a crash with a bus in 2016 that may have been avoided had the car been handled by a human. Furthermore, many sceptics are yet to be reassured about the risk of these cars being “hacked” to cause harm, or what would happen in the event of a power/network outage at high speeds. How driverless cars handle extreme weather conditions is also a concern that has yet to be convincingly addressed.

Although many people are yet to be won over by what they’ve seen so far, the more that major car manufacturers get in on the act and the more relaxed government legislation becomes, the sooner we could see the finished article on UK roads.