Major companies such as Google, Tesla and Mercedes-Benz have been developing driverless - or autonomous - cars for a while now, using the likes of intelligent sensors, image recognition, and supercomputer chips. Add to that the battle to own the maps that drive the cars and the race is really on.
So, how do driverless cars actually get from A to B?
If there’s no one in the car telling it where to go, how does a driverless car get around? From start to finish, the entire trip is powered by a clever GPS navigation system. Once the car knows where its passengers want to go, it decides which will be the best and fastest path to take. It’s just like a sat nav now – except you’ll be able to sit back and enjoy the ride.
While the GPS system tells the car which roads to take, it doesn’t give it any information about what those roads are like. That’s where the car’s clever sensor system comes in.
Radar sensors identify any nearby vehicles or obstacles and can see up to 100 metres in impaired conditions such as the dark or rain. Video cameras attached to the car read road signs, traffic lights and check for any pedestrians or moving obstacles. And that’s not all.
Lidar sensors use laser beams to detect the edge of the road and recognise lane markings, bouncing light off obstacles to provide a 3D 360° mapping of the car’s surroundings. Ultrasonic sensors in the wheels are used just like the sonars used by bats to find their way instead of using sight. They bounce sound waves off nearby obstacles (such as a curb), detecting their distance from the car so it can park safely.
Just think, in the future we might not need to own our own cars. We’ll simply tap the app from wherever and we’ll be driven from A to B. Scary or clever, you decide?
What’s really powering driverless cars - the really powerful bit
With four different sensors and sophisticated GPS, a driverless car collects a huge amount of data. So it needs a very intelligent system to process all the information in a way which can power the car.
While this technology is being developed in different ways by different companies, driverless cars typically process this data with a CAN (controller area network), enabling it to communicate with other electronic devices and ultimately converting information into action.
In a driverless car, this action is steering, gears, acceleration, and brakes. So a driverless car’s centralised computer system is really where the power lies to make the car move.
Adding to this exciting technology is the internet of things - the idea that everyday objects have network connectivity allowing them to send and receive data, like our smart meters - and soon we could be in an internet of places, where cars can interact with the environment around them. Futuristic or what?
An electric future
Since 2014 when plans to develop their own driverless car were announced, we’ve seen a lot of Google. With its cute and compact design, the Google car looks like it couldn’t hurt a fly. It also won’t be hurting the environment.
That’s because Google’s self-driving car is electric. As it won’t be using petrol for power, the car is more carbon-friendly and can be charged with renewable energy. The idea of a solar powered car has been in development for a few years now. While the obvious choice would be to cover the car in solar panels, developers have also looked at spraying them with photovoltaic paints, which could convert the sun's energy to power into electricity.
If the future of driverless cars is electric – and it looks like Tesla’s autonomous cars will also follow the electric path – they might soon be powered by us at E.ON. Our complete charging solutions already offer businesses tailor-made options for charging electric cars, and also help with energy management to optimise charging. With these schemes, we’re striving to change people’s perception of how they can power their cars in the future.
What a driverless future may look like
With such huge technology developments, you may assume that driverless cars will be an expensive investment. But this might not be the reality.
We’ve already worked with larger business like the ACC Liverpool Group to help them generate their own renewable energy with solar panels and save them around £20,000 on their energy bills. And we’re already investing in technologies like self-generation through solar panels and smart metering to make the future home more connected and sustainable.
So you never know, in a few short years you could be generating your own energy at home, and using it to power your own driverless car.