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 Common Fire Hazards Lurking in Your Home (and Simple Ways to Prevent Them)

iStock
iStock

Whether you're a homeowner or renter, a house fire can be a costly disaster. According to the National Fire Protection Association, home fires account for more than 2500 deaths and more than 12,000 injuries in the U.S. every year, not to mention billions of dollars in damage. U.S. fire departments respond to an average of 350,000 house fires annually.

The good news is, total fire-related deaths, injuries, and property losses have trended downward in recent years, and that may be due to improved fire-fighting technology at home. Nothing beats the effectiveness of smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, and a solid fire escape plan, but the newest smart home devices can help you prevent these common fire hazards lurking in your home.

1. UNATTENDED BURNERS

Wallflower stove monitor
Amazon

We’ve all had that moment of panic when we ask ourselves, “Did I remember to turn off the stove?” It’s worth double-checking, since cooking equipment is the leading cause of house fires. Stoves, ovens, and other appliances account for nearly 50 percent of incidents, while unattended cooking is the leading contributor to these fires.

Fortunately, new smart stovetop sensors and monitors will alert you when you’ve left the stove on. The Wallflower simply plugs into the wall with your electric stove, then alerts you when the stove is turned on, when it’s been on longer than usual, and even when you leave the house without turning it off. The crowd-funded Inirv React, meanwhile, promises to be a system of smart stove knobs that use sensors and electronics to detect smoke, natural gas, and motion, while allowing you to monitor your stove remotely.

2. DEAD SMOKE DETECTOR BATTERIES

Nest Protect home smoke detector
Amazon

Working smoke alarms should be placed on every floor of your home, and inside every bedroom: They cut the risk of dying in a house fire by half.

Basic smoke detectors can get the job done, but newer models can also alert your phone if there's smoke in your home, turn off your HVAC system to slow the spread of smoke, or record video so you can check the situation remotely.

Security expert Emily Patterson of independent review site A Secure Life highlights the Nest Protect as one of her favorite devices for fire safety. “It has CO detection as well as heat and humidity sensors, so it has the ability to distinguish between real causes for concern and burnt toast,” Patterson tells Mental Floss. “You can also enable smartphone alerts, which is handy if you’re not home, and set up automated protocols to unlock doors or record video if the alarm goes off.”

The detector is only as reliable as the battery powering it, though. The Roost Smart Battery allows you to retrofit existing smoke detectors with 9V batteries to be managed by your smartphone and alerts you when battery life is running low (after three to five years).

3. SPACE HEATERS

Dyson Hot + Cool fan heater
Amazon

Space heaters keep things cozy when your existing heating system performs poorly, but they can also be extremely dangerous. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more than 1100 residential fires—and more than 50 deaths—are linked to portable electric heaters every year. Fires often occur when the heaters are left on unattended or they’re too close to flammable materials like paper or blankets.

The U.S. Department of Energy recommends purchasing only newer-model heaters equipped with safety features like a tip-over switch and automatic shut-off, which kicks in if the heater exceeds a certain temperature. The Dyson Hot + Cool fan heater uses diffused mode heat to warm rooms evenly while the machine stays comfortable to the touch. For a more affordable option, the Smart Ceramic Tower Heater has infrared heat settings, a sleep timer, overheating protection, a tip-over safety switch, and Wi-Fi connectivity that lets you control it with your smartphone—just in case you forget to turn it off before leaving home.

4. OVERLOADED OUTLETS

Wemo smart plug
Amazon

Heat-producing small appliances like coffee makers and toasters can pose a fire risk if used improperly—like if you have too many appliances plugged into one outlet. The NFPA recommends plugging only one heat-producing gadget into an outlet at a time [PDF], while smart plugs make it easy to turn off power to small appliances when you’re not home. Some devices even turn off outlets automatically when they’re not in use. There are dozens of options on the market now, from Wemo’s Insight Smart Plug with energy monitoring to the iDevices Switch. Most can be controlled with your phone, and are compatible with smart-home hubs. Be sure to check that the smart plug you choose is equipped with enough power to handle the wattage of your appliances.

5. COMBUSTIBLE LANDSCAPING

B-Hyve sprinkler regulator
Amazon

The landscaping around your home can mitigate fire risks—or multiply them. Any plants that are too close to the house can present a fire hazard, especially when they’re dried out, says Cassy Aoyagi, a board member of the U.S. Green Building Council’s L.A. Chapter and president of FormLA Landscaping. “Several popular plants, like pampas, feather, and fountain grasses, marketed in the West as ‘drought tolerant,’ are actually quite combustible,” she tells Mental Floss.

A smart sprinkler controller makes it easy to ensure that your yard is moist and as fire-safe as possible. It can regulate and even reduce your water consumption, too. The Rachio 3 Smart Sprinkler Controller is equipped with a weather-monitoring system to adjust water use based on the forecast. The Orbit B-Hyve has fewer bells and whistles, but still offers smart scheduling with a smartphone app.

6. INTENTIONAL FIRES

iCamera KEEP home security system
Amazon

Let’s hope you never have to deal with this one, because playing with fire is no joke. The NFPA reports that 8 percent of residential fires between 2011 and 2015 were set intentionally, with 15 percent of civilian deaths happening as a result [PDF].

To keep your home safe inside and out, consider using a smart home security system. The iCamera KEEP Pro from iSmartAlarm has a powerful image sensor, sound and motion detection, event-triggered video recording, and a motion-tracking feature that allows the camera to follow movement around your space. The Wyze Cam 2 is a smaller model with motion-tagging technology and a budget-friendly price tag.

Nothing beats the power of common sense, of course. “Preparedness is the best protection,” Patterson says. “Have the right tools, have an evacuation plan, and know what to do in the event of an emergency. Fires are scary and it can be difficult to act quickly and think clearly in the moment if you aren’t prepared.”

Trulia Now Makes Browsing Neighborhoods as Easy as Browsing Homes

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iStock

An online real estate listing can tell you the number of bedrooms, the square footage, and the price of a property, but until you arrive in person, it's hard to know if the location will be a good fit for you. Trulia is looking to tackle that problem with a new Neighborhoods feature, as Fast Company reports, letting you virtually explore your potential home's surroundings before you show up for the tour.

Trulia, a listings site owned by Zillow, already offers all the standard information you would get from any other real estate service. Now, the new Trulia Neighborhoods feature also makes it possible to research various neighborhoods within the app the same way you would research individual houses and apartments.

The Neighborhoods feature includes a slideshow of annotated images of each neighborhood captured by Trulia's team of photographers and videographers. It also has some objective data about the area, like maps of local businesses, as well as first-hand reports from residents. In the "What the Locals Say" section, for instance, you might find that 90 percent of people reported that a neighborhood is quiet, while just 50 percent said it's easy to find parking there. This part also includes personal testimonies from individual users that you can browse by topic, such as "community" or "dog owners." Neighborhoods also allows you to easily access data on schools, safety, and commute times.

Trulia Neighborhoods isn't available for every market yet. For now, you can only take advantage of it if you're house-hunting in one of 300 neighborhoods across five U.S. cities—San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Austin, and Chicago. Trulia plans to expand the feature to more than 1100 neighborhoods by the end of 2018.

[h/t Fast Company]

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