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How to Tell if a Vehicle on the Road Is Autonomous

Published on Oct 31, 2019 at 2:31 pm in Rideshare Safety.


As increased discussions happen regarding the future of self-driving cars and how they could impact our roadways, you might wonder just how you’ll be able to tell if a vehicle on the road is autonomous. While the designs will vary by manufacturer, it’s likely most driverless cars will have similar, identifiable features. It’s also possible traditional features drivers are used to seeing could be missing.

The two most popular rideshare companies, Lyft and Uber, are testing autonomous vehicles in certain cities across the country. Learning how to recognize a driverless car now could help you prepare for how traffic and driving will change in the future.

How Autonomous Cars See

One of the tell-tale signs of a self-driving car is the mounted LIDAR (light detection and ranging) unit on the top of the vehicle. On Uber’s self-driving cars, the system sits on the roof of the car, taking up most of the surface area. Within the unit there are LIDAR beams, cameras, and antennae for GPS tracking.

The LIDAR unit is essentially the eyes of the car. The sensors within the unit continually fire off beams of laser lights. Then, it measures how long it takes for the light to return to the sensor. By doing so, it visualizes the world around it.

In the past, depth-sensing was done with echolocation or sonar. Sonar measures distance using sound waves. IT works best in water, where sound travels better than light or radio waves. In today’s vehicle, sonar sensors are often used as parking sensors, but the ranges don’t meet the demands of an autonomous car. After sonar came radar, which uses radio waves to measure distance. It can be used to detect and track objects.

LIDAR was developed in the 1960s to map the surface of the moon. It was first used in cars in the early 2000s. LIDAR lets the vehicle generate a 3D map of its surroundings. By doing so, it can detect lane boundaries, surrounding traffic or pedestrians, and traffic signals like stoplights.

Self-Driving Cars and Obsolete Features

While autonomous cars will have additional hardware like the LIDAR units, there are some standard features the self-driving cars of the future may not need. Those missing features could indicate to other drivers that the car is operating on its own.

Externally, one of the most noticeable features that could go missing is mirrors. While we need rearview and side mirrors to ensure we can back up, merge, and change lanes safely, the 360-degree cameras on top of self-driving cars remove the need entirely. Most autonomous vehicles currently have mirrors, but there’s a push from engineers and designers to remove them in the future.

Internally, there are likely to be even more significant changes to a driverless car. For one, a steering wheel, accelerator pedal, and brake pedal is not necessary. The computer inside the engine takes care of operating the car, so a truly optimized vehicle wouldn’t need the same controls as traditional cars. The seat design could also change. There are models that contain passenger seats that swivel, so occupants could face each other and converse as the car takes them to their destination.

Driving Near Driverless Cars

While we’re still some time away from autonomous vehicles on the road regularly, there’s always the chance you could encounter one on the road. With an initial glance, a self-driving car may appear like any other, but if you look closely, you’ll notice the additional or missing features we discussed above.

If you see a driverless car, it’s important to drive like you would any other time. Obey the speed limit and traffic signs, avoid tailgating, and don’t get distracted trying to look inside the vehicle. Failing to drive responsibly could result in an accident.

If you find yourself in an accident with a self-driving rideshare vehicle, you may wonder what your next step should be. Always contact the authorities after an accident and seek medical attention. If you believe the car malfunctioned and caused your accident, you have the right to seek compensation from the rideshare company or the manufacturer. Doing so can be a challenge, but with the right lawyer you’ll have the compensation you need to recover as quickly as possible. To learn more about your legal options after a rideshare accident, contact our nationwide lawyers.