What latest technology updates are supporting self-driving cars?

By Jonathan Crowl

The idea of self-driving cars still makes many consumers think of “The Jetsons,” but these days, it’s much closer to reality TV than anything else.

Some of the latest technology updates taking place on the mobile technology front have a direct role in the evolving state of autonomous vehicles. Even as companies such as Google and Uber run pilot programs testing these vehicles on public roadways, technological strides and improvements to software development are helping these innovators build better platforms to power self-driving cars, turning this futuristic technology into reality.

However, a self-driving car isn’t exactly a piece of technology on its own — rather, it’s an entire ecosystem of technologies, ranging from decades-old to brand-spanking new, that make autonomous vehicles possible.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest strides in mobile technology that are making the self-driving experience possible:

Motion sensors and computer vision

If you’ve ever seen a motion light turn on in someone’s backyard, you understand that motion sensors aren’t a new technology on their own. However, it’s all a matter of accuracy. When you’re managing the proximities of several other cars traveling at high speeds on multi-lane roadways, there isn’t much room for error. Motion sensors can use a mix of traditional radar, cameras and other motion-activated mobile technologies to recognize the distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you, observe cars changing directions and even detect changes in speed to activate the vehicle’s brakes.

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The best-known motion sensor solution is called Lidar, which stands for “light detection and ranging.” It uses a rotating laser to continually scan the vehicle’s surrounding environment, according to The Guardian. This computer vision system allows the car to render a 3-D image of the environment around it, providing an artificial vision that’s essential to operating in a live environment with unknown variables.

GPS

Cars have been operating with GPS for years, but again, the challenge is making sure that GPS functionality is extremely accurate, with minimal downtime. GPS is necessary for navigation from one point to the next, and it also complements the computer vision system in helping orient the vehicle and keep it on the right track.

A common concern is what could happen if a satellite system is temporarily downed. Self-driving cars will have limited data available to them, and a protocol must be in place to ensure these vehicles don’t put their passengers in dangerous situations by operating with limited vision. With GPS, recent advancements have focused on mitigating the risk of a downed system, increasing the accuracy of this satellite information and building procedures into the software to handle any unexpected outages.

Autonomous driving software

This type of technology is the most complex, and the most secretive. Companies developing such software are extremely protective of their system designs due to concerns that a competitor will copy their methods — or worse, improve upon them.

This software serves as the central hub for the car’s autonomous activities, managing data from sensors, GPS, radar and other feedback channels to dictate the vehicle’s responses and behavior. All the other technology functions to help this software serve as the driver. The stakes are extremely high with autonomous driving software — one single error can lead to multiple lives lost — so brands face incredible pressure to make sure this technology is in the best shape possible. As development continues, consumers should expect this software to become more responsive to unpredictable environments and more reliable as a practical means of transportation.

These latest technology updates have brought self-driving cars a long way. The challenge now is finding a way to bring this innovation to the mainstream market.