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How Do Self-Driving Cars Work?- The Sensors, The Algorithms, and The Data

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How do self-driving cars work? Most people think of autonomous or self-driving cars as a recent development that’s possible only because of recent technological advancements. However, did you know that experiments on autonomous vehicles began as early as 1920?

Indeed, promising trials were happening as early as 1950. Since then, almost every international car company has jumped on the bandwagon that’s self-driving cars.

They are the future. But not that far into the future. Jason Fischer, a chief engineer at General Motors (GM), thinks they could be here as soon as 2025.

How do these cars without drivers work, though? Everyone knows they need data to work, but which data do they need? Why aren’t they already on regular roads? Or do the cars need special roads? We examine all that in this article!

Image from Getty Images via Canva

Let’s dig in!

What Are Self-Driving Cars?

Self-driving cars are cars that don’t need drivers. They self-navigate to places with little human intervention.

Imagine waking up, getting into your car, and letting it take you to your destination. It’s like having a personal chauffeur. Only the chauffeur, in this case, is technology, not another person.

That, however, is a whole different level of automation. For those reasons, there are five automation levels for vehicles. The trucks, cars, and buses you see everywhere are at level zero of automation.

Each of the levels adds different automation. Here is what that means.

  1. Level 0- The driver handles all the work. They have to turn on the ignition to start, step on the gas to move the vehicle, and use the steering to change or continue in the desired direction.
  2. Level 1- Vehicles with this automation level interrogate some form of assistance for the driver. The vehicle Can perform some functions, but the driver needs to be alert to intervene whenever the car needs it.
  3. Level 2- Here, the vehicle provides partial assistance to the driver. While the car can move independently, it is up to the driver to monitor obstacles, weather, traffic, and road conditions.
  4. Level 3- In this level, the car can take care of everything in some conditions, such as a freeway. However, the vehicle can request the driver to step in in complicated situations.
  5. Level 4- cars at this level have a high automation level. They can handle themselves pretty well. However, in conditions such as dangerous weather, the driver might need to take control. Therefore, it’s the driver’s to decide when it isn’t a good idea to go on autopilot.
  6. Level 5- the highest possible level of automation. Here, the driver only needs to tell the car where he wants to go, then sits back and waits for it to do everything!

Currently, it’s possible to have cars at level 2 though trials on level 5 vehicles are advanced.

How Do Self-Driving Cars Work?-The Mechanism Behind Self-Driving Cars

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Self-driving cars have various sensors and technology that allow them to navigate and drive without a human driver.

There are five key aspects to how a self-driving car navigates roads.

1. Sensors

Self-driving cars use various sensors, such as lidar, radar, and cameras, to gather information about their environment.

The sensors enable the vehicle to detect obstacles, traffic signals, road markings, and other environmental features.

That’s how the cars know not to hit obstacles. Because the sensors act like the car’s inner eye, enabling it to see where it’s going. If there’s an obstacle in the car’s path, it will either stop or change direction.

2. Mapping

 Self-driving cars use this sensor data to map their environment, including the location of roads, lanes, traffic signals, and other features.

The sensor sees and then passes environmental information to the car, mapping the perfect path. Just like a human would.

3. Localization

Self-driving cars use their sensors and maps to determine their location within the environment. This is important for ensuring that the vehicle stays on the correct path and follows traffic laws.

4. Path planning

Based on the car’s location and the map of the environment, the self-driving car’s software determines the best route to its destination.

5. Control

Once the car has determined its desired path, it uses its control system to operate the accelerator, brakes, and steering to follow the planned route and avoid obstacles.

Overall, self-driving cars use a combination of sensors, maps, and advanced software algorithms to navigate and drive safely.

That’s why every reputable automaker is keen to jump onto this bandwagon.

Data Annotation and Self-Driving Cars

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Data annotation is the process of labeling or annotating data in a dataset with relevant information or metadata. This can include labeling images with the objects they contain or text with the sentiment it expresses.

In the context of self-driving cars, data annotation creates training datasets for machine learning algorithms. These algorithms teach the vehicle to recognize and classify objects and situations it might encounter on the road.

For example, a self-driving car can learn to recognize pedestrians, traffic lights, stop signs, and other road environment objects and features through training.

Data labelers feed the car’s machine learning algorithms a large dataset of annotated images that show these objects in different contexts.


The algorithms would then use this labeled data to learn how to recognize and classify these objects in real time. That makes it possible for the car to navigate road obstacles with human input. Amazing, right?

Data annotation is an integral part of developing and training self-driving cars. That’s because it helps to ensure that the car’s machine learning algorithms can accurately recognize and classify objects and situations in the real world.

This helps to improve the safety and reliability of self-driving cars and makes them more practical for use on public roads.

Why The Focus on Self-Driving Cars?

Image by Hakule via Getty Images

Every automaker wants in on self-driving cars. Why? Because they are the future? Not just that. Self-driving cars have immense advantages over regular vehicles.

Here is why the focus on these cars will only increase.

1. A Safer Transport System

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says about 94% of road accidents are because of human error.

One of the significant benefits of self-driving cars is that they can significantly reduce the number of accidents and fatalities on the road.

Autonomous vehicles use sensors and advanced technology to monitor their surroundings constantly. They can therefore make smarter decisions, which can help prevent accidents caused by human error, such as distracted or drunk driving.

2. Increased Efficiency

Self-driving cars can also help improve traffic flow and reduce road congestion. By using advanced algorithms and sensors, autonomous vehicles can communicate with each other and with traffic infrastructure to optimize their routes. That can help improve the overall efficiency of the transportation system.

3. Enhanced mobility for people who can’t drive

Self-driving cars could provide increased mobility for people who can’t drive because of physical disabilities, age, or other reasons.

Autonomous vehicles could also offer a safer and more convenient transportation option for people who live in areas with unreliable public transportation.

4. Less Need for Personal Car Ownership

With the proliferation of self-driving cars, people may no longer need to own personal vehicles. Instead, they could use autonomous ride-hailing services or car-sharing programs to get around.

That could help reduce the number of cars on the road and the need for parking spaces.

5. Environmental Benefits

Self-driving cars have the potential to reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by optimizing routes and minimizing the time spent idling in traffic.

There’s also immense potential for autonomous vehicles to rely on electric power or other alternative fuels, reducing their environmental impact.

Final Thoughts

How do self-driving cars work? They rely on the data to navigate roads and obstacles. Their sensors and cameras ensure they map their path and avoid hitting obstacles. Oh, the wonders of artificial intelligence!

Are you looking for a data labeling team for your AI project? Our highly trained team and AI Wakforce can end that search.

Contact us to see how you can leverage data’s power for your machine learning projects.

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