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Self-Driving Cars: Continental Shifts Are Another Issue Impacting Autonomous Vehicles

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author photo by Russ Heaps December 2016

As if there weren't already enough hurdles to clear in developing fully self-driving cars, WardsAuto has introduced the issue of continental shifts into the mix. A shift of a couple of feet over a decade may not sound like a big deal, but for unmanned vehicles constantly needing to pinpoint their precise locations to within inches to avoid crashing into one another, a discrepancy of a foot or two might as well be a mile.

Down Under

Sparking the September WardsAuto story about continental shifts and the affect on self-driving cars was news out of Australia that action was required to update that continent's spacial location. Why? Australia is moving roughly three inches north-northeast each year. Since the last official positioning of Australia in 1994, its most populous city, Sydney, has moved about 4.3 feet.

Globally

Australia is not alone. According to Scientific American, nothing on the earth has fixed coordinates, because the planet's surface is always shifting. Although there are scads of experts tasked with updating the accuracy of maps, they're always a step behind the movement of earth's landmasses. Los Angeles, by the way, is drifting northwest by a bit more than 1.5 inches each year.

The primary culprit is shifting tectonic plates. These are the huge slabs of rock that basically make up the earth's shell. They constantly slide over one another as the earth rotates. Varying in size, some move more than others.

Shifts and GPS

Although the bulk of current consumer GPS units are only accurate to within a few feet, the units in the autonomous vehicles (AVs) of the future will be more like the uber-accurate ones used by the U.S. military. As regular GPS units are tasked only with providing directions, it doesn't matter if the spatial information they get from satellites today is off by a foot or two.

Today's consumer GPS systems need only be accurate enough to get us from location to location. We input a destination's address, and the GPS provides turn-by-turn directions from our current location to the desired address. If your GPS instructs you to take the next exit off the freeway and you miss it, the GPS will show you traveling on the exit ramp for a few seconds before there is enough difference in where you actually are versus where the GPS believes you are for it to catch up. That's not pinpoint accuracy.

The GPS, though, must be a more precise tool in tomorrow's AVs. A critical element in the constant updating of an AV's exact location, the GPS will need to be accurate within inches or even fractions of an inch. That won't be possible if GPS satellites don't have accurate, up-to-date spatial information.

Action

In the case of Australia, Geoscience Australia, the country's overseer of geoscientific research and the storehouse of such data, is updating the continent's spatial information based on projections for 2020. By that date it hopes to be able to continually adjust the digital map to reflect continental drift.

What it means to you: Getting from today's semi-autonomous technology to full-blown self-driving cars is a path littered with an untold number of problems that must be overcome. Compensating for continental drift is just one of them. Fully autonomous cars are still a long ways off.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Self-Driving Cars: Continental Shifts Are Another Issue Impacting Autonomous Vehicles - Autotrader