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How car makers are experimenting with driverless car technology

Driverless cars are outstanding pieces of technology that are shaping the future of transportation, and everyone is eager to see them roam the streets. However, since driving is such a complex activity, driverless cars still have a long way to go before they’re ready to wander around on their own. That doesn’t stop auto makers from making the most out of the technologies already available in the field of driverless cars, though. Renowned auto makers such as Mercedes Benz, Audi, BMW or Tesla are already experimenting with some of the technologies that will empower the driverless cars of the future, and the results are nothing short of impressive. Here’s what driverless cars already brought us so far. 

Google

Google is not (yet) a car maker, but the company’s experience in the field of technology and its huge resource pool allowed it to make its way to the front of the pack in the race for the fully-autonomous cars. The company has been experimenting with autonomous vehicles for years now, and it is the first company to obtain a license for road-testing its autonomous models.

Google’s fleet of experimental self-driving vehicles consists of several car models such as the Toyota Prius, Audi TT or the Lexus RX450h, all fitted with roughly $150,000 worth of technology that gives them the ability to identify the surrounding environment with impressive precision. The company also came with its own design for an autonomous vehicle and, while a few prototypes have been built, it’s expected that they will only be mass produced after the self-driving technology will mature enough to allow these vehicles to hit the streets.

The equipment present in Google’s self-driving cars consists of a highly-sophisticated LIDAR system that’s responsible for scanning the surrounding environment and multiple cameras and sensors that can identify pretty much everything that’s happening around the vehicle. These are the systems that have been borrowed by other car makers and adjusted to fit their vehicles in the best way possible.

Tesla

Tesla has a strong reputation as a tech-oriented company that’s pursuing innovation, so it’s not really a surprise that their cars are technology-centered and already incorporate a lot of the technologies we’re likely to see in the driverless cars of the future.

Ever since the Tesla Model S was launched, it was clear that, aside from sheer performance, Tesla was set on providing a driving experience that’s not just entertaining, but also designed to prepare drivers for the era of driverless cars. The car itself was built from the ground up with driverless technology in mind, so the car is technically ready to drive itself, meaning that all the hardware is there, but just lacks a firmware upgrade to have it all activated and ready for use. This is bound to happen in the future, when the necessary software is powerful enough to allow the car to drive itself.

In the meantime, though, Tesla cars still pack in a lot of interesting technologies. For starters, there’s the highly-sophisticated auto pilot system. Now, in most cars, auto pilot usually implies a feature capable of keeping a constant speed when driving on a highway, but in Tesla cars this feature was pushed to a whole new level – the car can speed up, slow down and even perform overtakes, thanks to the high-precision sensors and cameras present in the car.

Aside from the auto pilot, Tesla cars also come with auto parking, which is a nice feature that allows the car to spot a parking space and do the parking itself, with little to no interaction from the driver. Last but not least, there’s the Summon feature, which allows Tesla owners to have their cars summoned out of a tight parking space or a garage at the press of a button or via a smartphone app. It’s worth noting that the Summon feature was introduced via an Over The Air software update, so Tesla owners can expect to see more features activated in time, all making their cars even more awesome than they already are.

Mercedes Benz

Mercedes Benz is one of the most popular car maker on the planet, with a strong reputation of building high-quality and technologically-advanced vehicles, so it was only logical that the company would jump on the driverless car technology bandwagon.

Numerous Mercedes models already include an advanced cruise control technology, known under the name of Distronic, which allowed the car to accelerate, decelerate and steer itself safely; however, Mercedes aims to take things to another level with the upcoming 2017 Mercedes E-Class, set to be revealed at the 2016 Detroit Motor Show, thanks to its Drive Pilot technology. Drive Pilot is basically an upgraded version of the Distronic, providing cruise control setting, with the added options of starting the car from a complete stop and being operational at speeds of up to 130 miles per hour, as well as allowing the car to change lanes and overtake with the help of its high-precision GPS system and its cameras. Another technology, Remote Parking Pilot, will allow Mercedes E-Class owners to park their cars via a smartphone app.

It’s also worth mentioning that, at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Mercedes unveiled a prototype driverless system that represents the company’s vision of the driverless car of the future. While the completely futuristic car clearly far away from mass-manufacturing, it did provide some interesting insights as to how Mercedes envisions the future of driverless cars, and we must say that we’re eager to see more, as the Mercedes F015 prototype was simply stunning and packed in futuristic technology.

Audi

Audi is no stranger to the world of driverless cars, and its proof-of-concept demos are good indicators that the company is on the right path. At CES 2013 Audi presented a highly-advanced self-parking system that allowed the driver to get out of the car and have the car navigate itself to a vacant parking spot and park there all on its own. Once the driver returned, the car would navigate back to the drop-off point and pick up the driver. Audi relied on the car’s integrated sensors and cameras for the job, but external input was also necessary from some laser sensors that delimited the parking space, as well as from the parking’s management system. However, Audi is confident that it can incorporate all those in its cars moving forward, and we’re going to take their word for it.

At CES 2015, Audi made another demonstration of how far it has gone experimenting with its Audi driverless car technology by having one of its concept cars drive by itself roughly 550 miles, from San Francisco to Las Vegas. Now, to be fair, the car did most of the driving on highways, with human input being required when navigating through the cities, but 550 miles is still an impressive figure.

BMW

BMW is no stranger to the technology race either, its luxurious BMW 750i model coming with some pretty neat features borrowed from self-driving cars, all packed under the simple name of BMW Active Assist. However, even though BMW Active Assist is definitely useful, it doesn’t bring anything new to the table compared to what other carmakers offer. Unless you take into account the autonomous drift feature presented at CES 2014, that it. Yes, you’ve read that correctly – while other car makers are focusing on keeping their cars straight on the roads, BMW took a leap and worked on a car that’s capable of drifting autonomously. Before you jump to conclusion and consider the system a nonsense, you might want to take into account what happens when, due to a sudden maneuver, you lose control over your car – exactly, you most likely end up in an uncontrolled drift. BMW’s goal was to start preparing for those unpredictable events when the car gets out of control, and find a way to get it back under control, which they did.

Are Car Makers Taking Full Advantage of Current Technologies?

Driverless cars may still be out of reach at this time, but the necessary technology is pretty much here now, it just needs some tweaks. The real challenge, though, is having these cars ready to interact with human drivers, and that’s exactly the stage where almost everyone got stuck at. Google managed to do some serious advancement in that area, but a recent even where one of its driverless cars collided with a bus is a clear indicator that, while self-driving cars may be ready for the open road, they’re not ready to share it with us just yet.

For car makers, this only means one thing – using as much as the tech as possible in current cars, and maybe prepare the cars for the moment when the breakthrough is made and the software behind the tech is finally ready to work along with human drivers. Tesla seems to be doing a good job at staying ahead in this segment, but just because software updates that enable more features are not overly present in other car models doesn’t necessarily mean that they cannot be done. Car makers have already surprised us with what they can do with the tech behind driverless cars, and by the looks of it, they’re just getting started.

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