The Sound of Science - "Self-Driving Cars"

Nov 16, 2018

Kate: Hi, I’m Kate Powers from NIU STEM Outreach, and this is the Sound of Science. Joining me today is Sam Watt who has a question from one of our loyal listeners.

Sam: That’s right, Kate. Today’s question is from Marcus, who asks, “How do self-driving cars work?”

Kate: Great question, Sam. We hear a lot these days about self-driving cars and if they’re safe, but how do they actually work with no one at the wheel?

Sam: To start, we need to talk about automation. There are six levels of automation that pertain to self-driving cars. At level zero, there is no automation and the driver controls everything. At level 1, certain systems can be controlled automatically, but one process at a time. Most cars on the road now have an autonomy of zero or 1.

Kate: So, level 1 is cruise control or auto-braking?

Sam: Exactly. As we move to higher levels, the car can automate more -- until at level 5, the car drives itself and reacts automatically to any situation on the road.

Kate: So how would one of these level 5 cars operate without any driver at all?

Sam: Well, there are several different models being worked on, but they all use a bunch of sensors to feed as 

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much information as possible about the car’s surroundings into the computer. Some systems use radar, digital cameras, sonar or even lasers to create a map of the car’s surroundings. Some even communicate wirelessly to share info with other cars or traffic devices.

Kate: And then the car’s computer uses that information to map out the best route to where it’s going, like on my phone?

Sam: Right. Except the car needs to be aware of more than just where it’s going. Complex algorithms and predictive modeling help the software identify and avoid obstacles and react to unpredictable situations -- all while still obeying traffic laws.

Kate: I don’t know, I have a lot of faith in technology, but I’m not sure I’d let my car drive me to work on its own.

Sam: As the technology develops, we’ll see cars with more and more automatic features standard, but it’s not going to happen overnight.

Kate: That’s a relief. Sounds like I’ll still be driving myself to work for the time being.

Sam: Yep. Now they just need to work on those flying cars we’ve all been waiting for…

Kate: While we’re waiting for that, be sure and send your driving questions to us at STEMoutreach@niu.edu.

Sam: This has been the sound of science on WNIJ, where you learn something new every day.