Autonomous vehicles: Are we there yet?

Feb. 6, 2020

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are the future of mobility, so everyone wants to know the same thing: When will they get here? That’s the million-dollar question, and it’s one that OEMs and startups hope to answer in the not-too-distant future.

With driverless road tests limited to select cities and test tracks, most consumers have yet to experience the technology firsthand. But it is coming along, and in time, AVs will deliver a host of benefits to completely transform the world of transportation.

When cars drive themselves, every driver becomes a de facto passenger. It will be possible to sleep through the ride, relax and watch a movie, or answer emails on the way to work. In time, vehicle interiors might look closer to an office or living room as consumers search for ways to pass the time.

However, AVs won’t get here overnight. While the automotive industry has made rapid advances in autonomous driving, the reality is that we’re still only in the development phase. Some suggest that 2034 will be the earliest that we’ll see them on our roads.

To usher in the next era of mobility, automakers need to consider a number of factors, such as safety, legal legislation, infrastructure, consumer buy-in, data networks, ethical issues, and much, much more. Therefore, it’s important that these factors are all addressed before AVs are on our roads. Let’s look a bit closer at some of them.

Safety First

OEMs have always been dedicated to safety, but this is especially important to autonomous vehicles, which will eventually ditch the pedals and steering wheels for a series of sensors and automated features. As cars gain more autonomy, they will need to be able to read the road and all of its complexities in order to ensure a safe journey.

This is one of the key reasons why AV development is taking longer than expected. In a traditional automobile, the human comes pre-equipped with a vision system (eyes) that interfaces with the most high-end computer known to man, the brain. The whole process is so seamless, most people don’t even think about the challenges they might face once they hit the road.

But an autonomous car will have to think about that and more. It will need to be just as capable of handling the coldest, snowiest days of New York as it drives through the bright, blinding sun of Arizona. AVs will need to be courteous just like a human driver would be, and thus communicate with pedestrians and human-driven cars to indicate their intentions.

Moreover, they’ll need to deal with varying road conditions (mud, ice, cracked pavement, etc.), and they might even need to determine when driving is simply too dangerous to proceed. On top of that, they will also need to be able to make instant judgments. For example, is that a piece of rubbish blowing across the road or a small child? Vehicles will need to see, analyze, and react, just like people do.

By taking the time to experiment with all of these elements, driverless cars will come with a huge advantage when they’re ready to be deployed. Tests are already underway at a number of locations, including the American Center for Mobility, an AV test track in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The goal is to allow consumers to commute confidently, knowing that these vehicles have been rigorously tested and perfected long before they pick up their first passenger.

Attracting Consumers

Consumer attitude is often cited as the major hurdle to AV deployment. However, a recent survey indicates that the tide is already changing. SAE International, a global association for automotive engineers, interviewed nearly 1,400 consumers after riding in a driverless vehicle. The results were very eye-opening: 82% were “enthusiastic” about self-driving cars before their test ride. After experiencing the technology, nearly 10% reported even higher enthusiasm.

More than three-quarters of participants (76%) rated the AV experience as similar or superior to a traditional automobile. And more than one-third (37%) believe that driverless cars will be safer than human-driven vehicles. This doesn’t mean that consumers will be ready to give up their existing cars tomorrow, but it’s a sign that views on mobility are evolving. It shows that as consumers experience AVs firsthand, their attitudes toward the technology will only improve.

Making Cities Smart

There are two components to the smart infrastructure and smart cities of the future. The first involves the challenge of getting there. Self-driving cars need both vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology, and both are still in the early stages of development. The latter requires ubiquitous connectivity—5G, Wi-Fi, DSRC, or some other method—and a multitude of sensors that will need to be installed in streetlights, traffic signals, stop signs, and more. It’s such a massive undertaking that one autonomous car startup has deployed its own AV sensors to better navigate the city.

The tech needed for widespread deployment is still in development, and when it’s complete installation won’t happen overnight. Like any road construction project, this is a multi-year initiative that will take some time. But once it's complete, the benefits will be quite significant. Instead of investing millions and billions of dollars in road-expansion projects, smart infrastructure might actually reduce those expenses. It could allow driverless vehicles to ride closer together and an at equal speed, removing the need for wide roadways or additional lanes.

Bryce Johnstone is Automotive Segment Marketing Director at Imagination Technologies.

This article originally appeared in ElectronicDesign. It is reprinted here with permission.


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