Rich Crocco

You May Be Closer to ‘Driving’ an Autonomous Car Than You Think

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Self-driving vehicles have evolved from seeming like a futuristic movie into a legitimate reality in just the past year. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, is “gunning to put autonomous cars on the road by 2023.” Delphi Automotive recently completed a cross-country trip in an autonomous vehicle in nine days. Let’s get a little perspective on what we mean by self-driving, or autonomous, vehicles and what it means to us.

There is a good article in Newsweek Tech & Science named “How will the Transition to Self-Driving Cars Work?” which explains three stages of technology related to autonomous vehicles.

     Stage 1 – Limited autonomy that doesn’t depend on data sharing.
     Stage 2 – Semi-autonomy that utilizes shared data.
     Stage 3 – Full autonomy with shared data, advanced sensors and (perhaps) high-resolution mapping.

Stage 1 is basically improved bells and whistles in normal vehicles to assist drivers. Features include lane keeping assistance, cruise control radar, etc. We are used to seeing upgrades in all the technology we use so this is not too surprising. Some of these features are already on the market and we can expect to see more of them in the next few years.

Things start to get interesting in Stage 2 because now you have information sharing between vehicles and other infrastructure such as traffic lights, etc. The type of network technology employed in this scenario is V2X Communications. How V2X Communications works warrants its own research so I will explain the details of this technology at another time. Suffice it to say assuming V2X communications is ubiquitous, vehicles can “build ‘models’ of the world around them” and therefore interact with the road environment in a safe way. According to the article, this technology is five to ten years away.

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With Stage 3 the vehicle can drive itself with or without the aid of shared data. The vehicle uses advanced sensors and map data to build a 3D model of the world around it. Estimates differ on when this technology will hit the commercial market, however it looks like it could be at least twenty years away. Some critics say these 20 years can be used to improve the look as well!

Semi-autonomous Vehicles

The above stages represent a linear progression from where we are today to creating a fully autonomous vehicle. Another way to look at this is a vehicle that combines manual and autonomous driving. This is a possible answer for the common driver with all of the unique situations the driver deals with outside of a long stretch of highway, while fully autonomous driving might be better served in commercial applications such as long-haul trucking where the bulk of driving takes place on the freeway.

Bosch created a semi-autonomous vehicle which allows for manual driving when it is needed the most and automated driving for the rest. The linked video demonstrates this very well. Basically the driver is in control of the vehicle to back out of the driveway and move around smaller spaces and city traffic. Once on the freeway the driver can switch to automated mode. Once in automated mode the vehicle is fully autonomous leaving the driver free to check email, watch movies, etc.

Although the prospect of semi-autonomous driving raises many questions such as what would happen if the driver forgets which mode the vehicle is in, I’m sure there were similar questions when we graduated from the horse to the car! Even now as I’m writing this my keyboard finishes some of my words for me, we are no strangers to semi-autonomous technology.

Other Effects

Something else to consider is how this technology will affect other industries. For example, studies show that 90% of car accidents are caused by human error. If you take humans out of the equation, you could theoretically see accidents decline approximately 90%. What will this do to personal injury law? A shift this large in the automotive industry will also have a major effect on the insurance industry. Now obviously there is no way to dispute improvements in safety and efficiency are positive and should be sought after, however we need to be aware of the effect this progress will have on other industries.

One last thought, how do you think autonomous vehicles will come to the market? Will private citizens purchase autonomous vehicles as we do now? Or will they be owned by public transit systems which deploy them as automated taxis? It will be interesting to see how this technology unfolds over the next five to ten years. In the near term however, we are going to have an interesting show to watch as many of the major car manufactures are working on autonomous vehicle technologies with relatively short-term goals to come to market.

Do you like the idea of giving up your car in exchange for an automated car or taxi? Let me know your thoughts.

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