Self-driving cars could be on the roads by 2016, specialist Mobileye Vision claims, though don't expect the full autonomy of a Google driverless car unless you have a very deep wallet. The company is readying a camera-based system which relies on a few hundred dollars of components, rather than the tens of thousands of dollars Google pays for each of the lidar sensing arrays atop its own test vehicles, though as The NYTimes discovered it doesn't add up to quite the same relaxing, hands-off ride.
Google's cars use a laser that measures the distance between them and any other object nearby, many thousands of times a minute. By building up a picture of the environment, the car can make split-second decisions as to when to turn, merge into other lanes, speed up, or slow down.
However, 360-degree lidar scanners are certainly not cheap, and that's going to impact how quickly self-driving cars can reach the market, Mobileye argues. "You cannot have a car with $70,000 of equipment and imagine it will go into mass production," company founder Amnon Shashua says.
Instead, far more mainstream cameras are used for Mobileye's system. In fact, the company is behind camera-based autonomy tech in a number of vehicles; previous versions have been used by Volvo and others to flag up pedestrians walking past A-pillar blind-spots, for instance. Newer versions - set to arrive this year - will help guide the car in stop-start traffic, similar to what Mercedes announced for the new S-Class.
However, those systems require the driver still keep hold of the wheel, whereas Mobileye's new technology - which is still roughly three years out from the market - can handle hands-off driving. Cars equipped with the system can keep to a single lane, at freeway speed, along with spotting traffic lights and other cars and slow/stop/start again accordingly.
"The car had a tendency to weave a bit when it started to pull away from an intersection — behavior that did not inspire confidence. Once, as we were passing a parked car, the Audi pulled in the direction of the other vehicle. Not wanting to learn the car’s intentions, I lifted my hands out of my lap and nudged it back to the center of the lane. The Mobileye engineers sat perfectly calm" John Markoff, NYTimes
Next up, Mobileye says, is a big increase in how many cameras the car is equipped with. By the end of the month the test car should have six in total - including a wide-range lens, and extra side and rear views - which, the engineers claim, is the next step toward full Google-style autonomous driving.