10 Things You Might Not Know About Self-Driving Cars

Getty Images
Getty Images

Cars have long been a symbol of freedom in American culture, but advances in technology promise to reshape exactly what that means. In coming years, cars could very well offer their "drivers" freedom from actually having to drive. Self-driving cars—also referred to as autonomous or driverless—can navigate without human input and could redefine transportation, cities, and countless tangential industries. While you’ve likely heard some chatter or watched a few YouTube videos about the technology, here are 10 things you may not know about driverless vehicles.<

1. WE'VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT SELF-DRIVING CARS SINCE THE 1930S.

The buzz surrounding self-driving cars has been growing lately, but the idea is far from novel. At the 1939 World's Fair in New York, GM’s Futurama exhibit included driverless technology—and experts were sure it would be a reality by the 1960s. Clearly, we’re a little behind.

In 2004, for example, a driverless car challenge made headlines because no vehicles were able to complete it. Tech and auto companies alike are optimistic that the time is near, though. Google is aiming to commercialize its self-driving cars by 2020, Elon Musk says Tesla should have a fully autonomous vehicle complete within two years, and experts expect the technology to be commonplace (and actually affordable to the average American) by 2040.

2. IN 2015, A CAR SUCCESSFULLY DROVE ITSELF ACROSS THE COUNTRY.

Auto supplier Delphi, which flies pretty under the radar compared to companies like Google and Tesla, showed off its driverless Audi last year. The Roadrunner drove from San Francisco to New York City, navigating 15 states and 3400 miles over the course of nine days. While a driver was behind the wheel just in case, the car reportedly tackled 99 percent of the trip.

3. YOUR CAR MAY ALREADY HAVE SOME SELF-DRIVING FEATURES.

While fully driverless technology isn't yet a reality for most of us, the line between standard cars and self-driving ones is blurring. More automakers are equipping models with the sensors, GPS, radar and laser technologies that enable automation; 10 million cars with self-driving features are expected to be on the road by 2020.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Association breaks out several levels of autonomous vehicles. In a nutshell, level zero has no automation while level four would actually turn a driver into a totally passive passenger.

On the spectrum are function-specific features like automatic breaking, lane keeping, and cruise control, considered level one. General Motors is set to offer a level two feature—meaning at least two function-specific automations work together—in its 2017 models. And level three means the driver can cede full control of the car in certain conditions, but must be occasionally available to take the wheel.

4. THE TECHNOLOGY ISN'T JUST FOR CARS.

GPS and sensor technology is being applied to tractors, mining trucks, cargo trucks, and more. Autonomous agriculture systems, which include self-driving tractors, have been in use since 2011, while two mines in Australia have been transporting all their goods with self-driving trucks since late last year.

Cargo trucks, which are aiming for level three automation, are at the forefront of vehicle to vehicle (V2V) technology. That’s when sensors between trucks communicate. The prominent application is platooning, which is when several trucks follow one another from a safe but close distance, dramatically improving fuel efficiency.

5. GOOGLE CURRENTLY HAS MORE THAN 50 SELF-DRIVING CARS ON THE ROAD.

The company's fleet [PDF] includes 22 Lexus SUVs fully equipped with autonomous technology and 33 smaller self-driving prototypes. These self-driving vehicles can be spotted on public streets in Mountain View and Austin, and have driven 1.4 million automated miles.

6. ORIGINALLY, GOOGLE'S SELF-DRIVING CARS WEREN'T GOING TO HAVE STEERING WHEELS.

When Google first announced its plans, project director Chris Urmson said the cars wouldn’t "have a steering wheel, accelerator pedal or brake pedal ... because they don't need them."

It seemed like those plans would have to change when the California DMV released draft rules requiring a steering wheel, brake pedal, and licensed operator. But some progress was made just this week.

Earlier this month, the National Highway Safety Association approved Google’s proposal for a car with “no need for a human driver.” While it said many regulations will have to be rewritten to address specific requirements—such as the need for and placement of a steering wheel and other controls—the ruling is seen as a huge step forward for the fully autonomous vehicles Urmson and his team are working toward.

7. THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT WANTS TO DROP $4 BILLION TO MAKE SELF-DRIVING CARS A REALITY.

Still, regulatory hurdles are expected to be one of the biggest bottlenecks to the adoption of driverless cars, especially considering variation between states. But the federal government is trying to front run that problem: Besides the NHTSA’s promising response to Google, the most recent budget proposal included proposed spending $4 billion over the next decade to test the technology and fast-track the creation of a regulatory framework.

The government is likely chomping at the bit to iron out the kinks since driverless technology promises to reduce carbon emissions, traffic congestion and car accidents.

8. MOST ACCIDENTS INVOLVING DRIVERLESS CARS HAVE BEEN A HUMAN'S FAULT.

All accidents involving Google’s driverless cars have been the result of human error; the first reported accident took place when a human-driven car rear-ended the driverless one. In fact, advanced driver assistance systems and autonomous vehicles are expected to reduce crashes by 90 percent. But they're not always successful. On March 17, 2018, one of Uber's driverless cars struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona.

9. SELF-DRIVING CARS COULD SAVE YOU $1000 ON CAR INSURANCE.

Based on Google’s no-fault history, insurance company MetroMile calculated that annual car insurance for a self-driving car would cost just $250. Director Jason Foucher added that, in a future where all vehicles on the road were fully autonomous, the car manufacturer would likely offer blanket product liability coverage, with the cost of insurance, repairs and warranty included in the purchase or lease price.

10. THE TECHNOLOGY IS BRINGING BACK AGE-OLD ETHICAL DEBATES.

The programming of autonomous vehicles is raising philosophical questions, the most popular of which is called “The Trolley Problem.” The debate is centered on worst-case scenarios: Should a self-driving car be programmed to protect the driver at all costs, or to do the least amount of damage possible?

Dr. Gregory Pence, a university philosophy chair, believes it’s unlikely a car can actually be programmed to handle all scenarios and make such a decision even if the debate were settled. But he stressed that such ethical questions still need to be considered early on in the creation and adoption of new technologies like autonomous vehicles.

Additional Sources: Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Work, Live, and Communicate

6 Fun Backgrounds to Use on Your Next Video Call

You might be stuck in the living room, but it doesn't have to look like it.
You might be stuck in the living room, but it doesn't have to look like it.
Ridofranz/iStock via Getty Images

If you’re struggling to find a perfectly decorated wall in your house to serve as the backdrop for your video calls with friends, family, and coworkers, we have good news: Video conferencing platform Zoom lets you customize your very own virtual background.

To do it, log into your Zoom account, go to “Settings” on the left side of your screen, and choose the "Meeting" tab. Scroll down to the “In Meeting (Advanced)” section, and then scroll down farther to make sure the “Virtual background” option is enabled. After that, open the Zoom application on your desktop, click on the “Settings” wheel in the upper right corner, and go to “Virtual Background.” There are a few automatic options, but you can choose your own image from your computer files by clicking on the plus-sign icon.

Now, the only thing left to do is decide which image will best set the tone for your next video call. From the New York Public Library’s Rose Reading Room to Schitt’s Creek’s Rosebud Motel, here are six of our favorites.

1. The Rosebud Motel lobby from Schitt’s Creek

schitt's creek rose motel lobby
It's not the Ritz-Carlton.
CBC

You can imagine that David is just out of frame, doing his best to carry on a silent—albeit with lots of expressive gesturing—conversation with Stevie at the front desk. (More Schitt's Creek backgrounds here.)

2. Carl and Ellie’s house from Up

carl and ellie's house from up
Balloons not included.
Walt Disney Pictures

If you’re hoping to create a calming atmosphere, look no further than the cozy little sitting room where Carl and Ellie grew old together in 2009's Up. (More Pixar backgrounds here.)

3. The attic study from Knives Out

knives out attic study
Nothing bad has ever happened here.
Lionsgate

If your own study isn’t quite teeming with intriguing souvenirs and leather-bound volumes, feel free to borrow this one from the mansion in 2019’s Knives Out. (More Knives Out backgrounds here.)

4. The USS Enterprise from Star Trek

star trek's uss enterprise bridge
A great way to get your coworkers to fess up to being huge Trekkies.
TrekCore.com, Twitter

Blame your spotty internet connection on the fact that you’re traveling through the galaxy at the speed of light with this background from the bridge of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. (More Star Trek backgrounds here.)

5. The New York Public Library’s Rose Reading Room

new york public library reading room
You reserve the right to shush any coworkers who forgot to mute themselves.
New York Public Library

Bibliophiles who can’t make it to the library can still pay a virtual visit to the sumptuous Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library’s iconic Fifth Avenue location. (More New York Public Library backgrounds here.)

6. The Werk Room from RuPaul’s Drag Race

rupaul's drag race werk room
Sashay away from the screen if you're taking a bathroom break during the call.
VH1

Dazzle your coworkers by calling in from the vibrant room where all the magic—and most of the drama—happens on RuPaul’s Drag Race. If you happen to be decked out in an ensemble made entirely of things you found at the Dollar Store, even better. (More RuPaul's Drag Race backgrounds here.)

Turn Your Favorite Photos Into Works of Art With Google’s Art App

Edvard Munch's "The Scream"
Edvard Munch's "The Scream"
Edvard Munch, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If your local art museum is closed, a new app from Google Arts & Culture will make the photos in your camera roll worthy of gallery consideration. As Gizmodo reports, the Art Transfer feature uses artificial intelligence to reimagine any image you upload in the style of a famous artist.

If you've already downloaded Arts & Culture for Android or iOS, hit the camera icon at the bottom of the app and select Art Transfer. From here, you can either snap a photo or choose an existing picture saved on your phone. Google then gives you a variety of art styles to choose from. You can transform your cat into Edvard Munch's The Scream, for example, or turn your brunch pic from last month into a piece of Yayoi Kusama pop art.

The feature doesn't just apply filters; it uses machine learning to edit the colors, textures, and even shapes in the image you upload.

Dog image inspired by Man from Naples.
Michele Debczak/Mental Floss, Google Arts & Culture

Pizza picture inspired by The Scream.
Michele Debczak/Mental Floss, Google Arts & Culture

Two years ago, Google Arts & Culture rolled out a similar feature that matched users' selfies to their art lookalikes. The difference with this one is that instead of showing you existing art, it creates an entirely new image by combining your photo with a famous artwork.

You can download Arts & Culture for free today from the App Store or Google Play. After having fun with the new feature, you can use the app to virtually explore landmarks, museums, and other cultural institutions from the comfort of your home.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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