HANDS-FREE RIDE: sit back and relax: Self-driving cars are becoming a reality

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Author: Jennifer Barone
Date: Sept. 4, 2017
From: Science World/Current Science(Vol. 74, Issue 1)
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,215 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1130L

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ESSENTIAL QUESTION: How do technological innovations change the way we live our daily lives?

Last year, Uber customers became some of the first people to try a technology straight out of science fiction: cars that drive themselves, no humans required. Until recently, the app-based transportation service always sent human drivers to pick up customers. Now it has begun testing autonomous vehicles in Tempe, Arizona, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The cars rely on computers and sensors to navigate their surroundings. Uber plans to eventually transition to vehicles that are completely self-driving.

"People have fantasized about self-driving cars for a long time," says Jimmy O'Dea, a vehicle technology analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Now these vehicles are actually being tested on public roads and carrying passengers."

There's fierce competition among leading automakers and technology companies to develop autonomous vehicles. Waymo, a self-driving car service started by Google's parent company, Alphabet, has even accused Uber of stealing trade secrets to gain the upper hand. "Every major auto company is thinking seriously about this," says O'Dea. A computer at the wheel could eliminate human error and make driving safer. But there's a long road ahead before driverless cars become the norm.


These components allow self-driving vehicles like the Waymo van (right) to operate.


Some vehicles are now equipped with sensors and extra computing power that give them the ability to operate without any input from a driver. They rely on GPS to navigate to a destination.

Radar helps a self-driving car sense its surroundings. A radar system sends out radio signals, which are an invisible form of light, and detects them when they bounce back off of surrounding objects. A computer on board the vehicle calculates how far away each object is. This technology provides accurate measurements of distance, so it's especially useful in situations where objects are close to the car, like in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Cameras help by providing images of the car's surroundings. The computer uses them to identify other vehicles, pedestrians, bicyclists, traffic lights, and signs.

Many self-driving cars also carry a spinning lidar unit on top. Lidar works like radar, but instead of radio waves, it emits a laser beam, often consisting of invisible infrared light. Lidar combines various advantages of radar and cameras: It provides distance measurements and also reveals the shape of objects.

Software in the vehicle's computer uses these inputs to identify objects based on their appearance and speed. Engineers have programmed the software to make decisions about how to proceed based on the inputs the car receives. Computer code tells the vehicle to obey traffic laws such as stopping at red lights and yielding appropriately. But it allows the car to ignore traffic laws when safety is at stake. For example, if highway traffic is going faster than the speed limit, a self-driving car might keep up with surrounding vehicles rather than slowing down and potentially causing an accident.

The computer also sends commands to robotic moving parts called actuators. These components control acceleration, braking, and steering (see How Cars Drive Themselves, p. 9).


One of the biggest roadblocks to getting driverless cars up and running is ensuring that the technology is safe for the streets. During Uber's testing phase for its self-driving cars, an engineer from the company rides along in the driver's seat. He or she can take control of the car if needed. The same goes for Waymo. It recently launched the first public tests of its autonomous vans--with an employee in the driver's seat--in Phoenix, Arizona.

The carmaker Tesla, while not yet programming its electric cars to be fully autonomous, has "Autopilot" capabilities on all its vehicles. The software can steer, change lanes, speed up and slow down, apply the brakes, and park on its own. However, the company advises drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and monitor the vehicle's operation.

Since driverless technology is so new, many states don't have rules about it. Currently, only 13 states have enacted laws or regulations relating to whether and how autonomous vehicles can operate.


Self-driving cars still have a long way to go to prove their reliability. Some have run red lights or been in minor collisions, most of which were the fault of other drivers.

But many experts hope that once driverless technology is fully developed, it could make roads safer than ever. Of all the potential benefits of self-driving cars, "the big one is safety," says O'Dea. Computer-driven cars don't get sleepy, drunk, angry, or distracted.

Talking or texting, checking navigation systems, or adjusting music while driving can lead to deadly crashes. More than 30,000 people die in auto accidents in the U.S. every year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Millions more are injured or disabled. Human error contributes to more than 90 percent of crashes.

Some experts suggest that human drivers might someday be banned from public roads for safety reasons, just as horse-drawn carriages are no longer allowed on most expressways.


Self-driving vehicles could have other effects on our lives. "We're looking at changing one of the most fundamental daily experiences that many people have," says Bryan Reimer, an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies driver behavior.

If cars can drive themselves, cities and towns may not need as many parking lots. Many people might get around with shared vehicles that never have to park. The cars could just move on to the next customer after a drop-off.

People's jobs could change too. "There are a lot of people employed today as drivers," O'Dea points out. Self-driving vehicles could reduce demand for those jobs. But "the field will create new jobs in software and robotics, so there will be opportunities opening up," he says.

Reimer and O'Dea both believe that for the next several years, most people will still drive the old-fashioned way--so those turning 16 soon shouldn't skip out on licenses. But many will get to ride in self-driving vehicles in the not-too-distant future. "Autonomous vehicles could change so much about how people get around, where they live, and what cities and towns look like," says O'Dea.


Do you think the benefits of self-driving cars support their use over traditional vehicles? Cite evidence from the text to support your answer.


These components allow self-driving vehicles like the Waymo van (right) to operate.


Uses radio waves, which bounce off nearby objects, to determine how far away objects are


Located inside the car. It analyzes data from sensors to determine responses such as steering, shifting gears, and braking.


Emits lasers--concentrated beams of light--to gather data about the car's environment such as distances to objects


Detect other vehicles, traffic lights, signs, pedestrians, and bicycles



Engineers in Japan add cameras and image-processing computers to a car. The vehicle can track markings on the street and drive at about 18 mph.


German engineers outfit a van with cameras. It successfully drives for a distance of about 12 miles at a speed of 55 mph.


A car from the same German team uses two cameras to recognize road markings and the presence of other vehicles.


Roboticists from California complete a cross-country trip in a self-driving test car. It requires human assistance for less than 2 percent of the trip.


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which develops U.S. military technology, hosts competitions for autonomous cars.


Engineers in San Francisco modify a Toyota Prius to drive itself across the Bay Bridge to pick up a pizza and then return.


Major automakers, including Ford, Toyota, and Volvo, test autonomous technology.


A software update to Tesla vehicles delivers the first Autopilot features.


A self-driving truck makes the first autonomous cargo delivery in Colorado. Uber begins testing self-driving vehicles with its customers in Pittsburgh.


Waymo begins testing autonomous cars in Phoenix. Cadillac begins selling models with a self-driving feature called SuperCruise.

Caption: TEST-DRIVE: A Waymo self-driving van in Phoenix, Arizona

Caption: WHAT THE CAR SEES: Software combines data from cameras and sensors to build a picture of the environment.

Caption: CRASH! A human driver in another car caused this collision with a self-driving Uber SUV in Arizona in March.

Lexile 1070


Go to scholastic.com/scienceworld to access a version of this article with a lower reading level.


Define Problems that can be solved using autonomous machines and outline the properties needed to meet the design criteria.


NGSS: Practice: Asking Questions and Defining Problems

Crosscutting Concept: Structure and Function

Core Idea: ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting an Engineering Problem

COMMON CORE: Writing Standards: 2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly.

TEKS: 6.8B, 7.7, 8.6B, P.4C,



Show students the video "No Driver Required!" available at scholastic.com/science world. Ask students to note what the car is able to do without human input. (stop at an intersection, put on a turn signal before turning, brake for a pedestrian, etc.) How do they think these tasks Eire accomplished? (cameras, radar, computer programs, etc.) What benefits do scientists think self-driving cars could have? (:reclaiming space in cities, reducing traffic congestion.)


Guide students in a discussion about the design criteria of an autonomous car. What characteristics must the car have to be successful? Make a list of important criteria. ([discussion may include: being able to follow a road, identify stoplights, brake when a car in front slows, etc.) What constraints exist? These are limitations to the design. (Answers may include cost, tools and materials, lack of scientific knowledge, etc.)


Have students read the article silently. After everyone is done, refer to your list of criteria and constraints. Ask students to explain features of the cars that help the vehicles meet the criteria. Add any additional criteria from the article to your list. Ask students the Core Question on page 11: Do you think the benefits of self-driving cars support their use over traditional vehicles? Cite evidence from the text to support your answer. Do students think self-driving cars will become common in the future? Why or why not?


Hand out the "Think Like an Engineer" skills sheet found at scholastic.com/ scienceworld. Have students complete the skills sheet independently. Then ask for a few volunteers to present their designs. As a class, discuss the criteria and constraints of the design. Brainstorm ways the design could be improved.


Have each student research another type of autonomous machine that is currently being used to complete tasks without human input. (Examples may include robots that move goods around warehouses like those of Amazon, assembly-line robots, self-driving lawn mowers and vacuum cleaners, etc.) Ask them to evaluate the criteria and constraints of the different designs. Have them write a report that compares the machine with autonomous cars and present it to the class.


Pollution Producers

EARTH SCIENCE: Students will graph data about greenhouse gas emissions and analyze the impact of driverless cars.

BIOLOGY: Crash Stats

Students will analyze crash statistics and evaluate how the use of self-driving cars might affect them.

CHEMISTRY: Car Combustion

Students will analyze two models to learn about the combustion reactions that power car engines.


Watch a video about autonomous vehicles at scholastic.com /scienceworld.



DIRECTIONS: Answer the following questions in complete sentences.

1. Describe three different tasks an autonomous car should be able to perform to drive safely on a road. --

2. Describe one feature of an autonomous car and explain how it helps the car perform one or more of the tasks in your answer above. --

3. How is lidar similar to radar? --

4. What is one piece of evidence the author presents to support the idea that driverless vehicles may be safer than cars driven by people? --

5. What effect do you think using driverless cars could have on the environment? Support your answer with evidence from the text. --


1. Answers may include detecting a person or other object crossing in front of the car, following the lanes on a road, detecting stop signs, and identifying whether a traffic light is red or green.

2. Answers will vary but may include that an autonomous car has cameras and other devices that can detect objects around the car and a computer that analyzes the images or data and tells the car to slow down or stop.

3. Both lidar and radar systems are used to detect objects and determine distances to the objects. In both systems, a form of light is emitted and then detected after it bounces off objects.

4. Answers may include that human error contributes to more than 90 percent of car crashes.

5. Answers may include that fewer cars may be needed because people could more easily share cars. More green space could be restored because fewer parking areas would be needed.

Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A510480926