At least one headline, either in newspapers or news channels, is often packed with stories of self-driving vehicles. Driverless cars, as most of us know, have also sparked Hollywood’s imagination for the last few decades.
SO WHAT’S NEW?
Much as it may surprise us, the concept of autonomous vehicles is not entirely new, if we drive down history lane a bit. As early as 1925, Houdina Radio Control demonstrated a radio-controlled driverless car, the "Linrrican Wonder" on New York City streets, traveling up Broadway and down Fifth Avenue through the thick of the traffic. More recent years have seen significant progress towards the goal of autonomous and unmanned vehicles, which are equipped with a vast variety of technologies, including, but not limited to, increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) and capabilities of robotics. These technological advancements allow society to fundamentally reconsider the vehicles available to users and the infrastructure that they are part of.
The first known truly autonomous car
— which could process images of the road ahead — was unveiled in 1977 by S. Tsugawa and his colleagues at Japan’s Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering Laboratory.The first self-sufficient and truly autonomous cars appeared in the 1980s, with Carnegie Mellon University's Navlab and ALV projects in 1984, and Mercedes-Benz and Bundeswehr University Munich's Eureka Prometheus Project in 1987. However, limited research had been observed since, until 2005
Research on autonomous vehicles in the United States, Europe, Japan and similar countries is now accelerating. These countries have now even begun testing prototypes of autonomous cars on public roads. Autonomous vehicle technologies are being incorporated in vehicles after steady research, and at a brisk pace, so as to enable these vehicles to arrive in the market quickly. Although the use of autonomous vehicles provides such benefits as improved safety, reduced congestion and lower stress for car occupants, challenges that need to be addressed include societal expectations regarding safety, legal responsibility and more importantly, privacy.
Many major automotive manufacturers including General Motors, Ford, Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen, Audi, Nissan, Toyota, BMW and Volvo — have been testing driverless car systems. BMW, in particular, has been testing driverless systems since around 2005, and in 2010 Audi sent a driverless Audi TTS to the top of Pike’s Peak at close to race speeds. The 2014 Mercedes S-Class has options for autonomous steering, lane keeping, acceleration/braking, parking, accident avoidance and driver fatigue detection — in both city and highway traffic speeds of up to 124 miles (200 km) per hour.
In April 2015, a car designed by Delphi Automotive became the first automated vehicle to complete a coast-to-coast journey across North America. It traveled from San Francisco to New York while under computer control for 99 percent of the total distance. Tesla’s recent Model 3 announcement took the industry by storm, resulting in Tesla collecting a whopping $276 million in pre-orders in a matter of days.
LEVELS OF AUTONOMOUS DRIVING
Going from the driver performing every function and the car performing a few at Level 1 is barely noticeable. But getting the current state of the art, high Level 2, has taken decades and yielded only a Tesla Model S that can drive itself with driver supervision, mainly on highways.
The Google car is a low Level 3 is, and it is still largely an experiment. Here, the driver controls can theoretically be done away with, although some driver backup is preferred. On the other hand, we are just years away from seeing Level 3 become widespread.
Full Level 4 involves the car driving itself from point to point with zero human input. The technology required to execute this is now available, but the implementation is daunting, given the present automotive environment. Hence, it will likely be decades before Level 4 arrives.
WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW?
The automobile manufacturing industry is aiming for a completely autonomous car by the end of the next decade, in the wake of availability of technologies —, such as GPS, radar and lidar, IR and ultrasonic sensors, odometry, computer vision and many more — which will be used in the driverless vehicles. Automation software has been developed for autonomous vehicles, which includes software for parking assist, intelligent cruise control, lane guidance, blind-spot sensors, emergency braking, collision avoidance and traffic-jam assist. Apart from this, artificial intelligence (AI) is being integrated within the autonomous vehicles to make them more technologically advanced.
More self-driving features are incorporated in the vehicles manufactured by General Motors, Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Nissan and Tesla, with an intention to have self-driving capabilities up to 90 percent in their 2017 models. However, these self-driving features are mostly related to use of Advanced Driver Assist Systems (ADAS), in comparison to fully autonomous driving. On the other hand, automobile users are likely to see this transition accelerated.
A GLANCE AT THE PATENTS:
There is much more happening in the area of patents when compared to the development of autonomous vehicles. Several companies, even those from outside the automotive industry, are actively filing patents in the technologies that are found to be useful in autonomous vehicles. The patent filing trend in this area is increasing with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18 percent per year.
Toyota, Denso and Nissan are the leading automotive companies in patent filings in autonomous vehicle technologies. There are other nonautomotive companies, such as Robert Bosch, that are working on technologies that can be implemented in autonomous vehicles.
- Semi-self-driving cars are already on the road. Many have tried out Tesla equipped with Autopilot and advanced cruise-control features in a variety of cars. As a result, many experts now think that autonomous vehicles may be in the market sooner than anticipated. But fully autonomous vehicles could still take a while.
- On the other hand, technologies like laser mapping systems, sensors to read terrain, and V2V communication are being extensively used in autonomous vehicles. Several companies from outside the core automotive industry are getting involved or are already active.
- It is worth learning about the different technologies used in autonomous vehicle manufacturing and also knowing about the companies that are from outside the automotive industry.