We are heading toward self-driving cars quicker than anyone could have imagined just a few years ago. While it will clearly be some time before our highways are packed with driverless cars making their way to work, home, and parts beyond, there are glimpses of the future driving alongside us now.
It may be the Honda Civic self-aligned in the fast lane beside you, or the Ford Fusion Energi in your rear view mirror that stopped without driver assistance as traffic ground to a halt, then automatically paced your car as your lane began moving again. Or maybe the driver of the nearby Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid who misjudged how quickly traffic would stop, but escaped incident because of on-board systems that sensed a collision and automatically initiated emergency braking. And what about that Tesla Model S ahead that signaled and changed lanes seemingly on its own as its driver focused on something else?
These are real capabilities of vehicles on the road today. Not all models with autonomous technologies are ‘green’ cars, but assuredly many of them will be since there’s a natural convergence of autonomous driving technology and more efficient cars unfolding before us. This is only gathering momentum as a growing number of vehicles begin to feature systems like these.
Already, cars are increasingly equipped with an array of sensors, radar, and cameras to facilitate driver assistance systems that help deal with mundane chores like backing up safely and parallel parking. These same sensors and systems provide a foundation for even more sophisticated autonomous driving capabilities.
Several automakers are striving mightily to lead the field. Tesla is one of these, not only with the ability for its Model S to autonomously stay in its lane and with traffic flow, but automatically and safely change lanes with the flick of a turn signal when Autosteer is engaged. Cadillac is another with its upcoming Super Cruise.
Volvo is also at the forefront of this race to an autonomous driving future, in part because autonomous cars are considered much safer ‘drivers’ than humans and this aligns well with Volvo’s ambitious goal to eliminate traffic fatalities in its vehicles by 2020. Its XC90 plug-in hybrid already features some of the most advanced autonomous systems out there including Sensus Connect, Intersection Auto Brake, and Pilot Assist. Volvo has also created its Concept 26 autonomous driving interior for the XC90, the first such autonomous-focused concept interior built on a vehicle platform sold today. Volvo is taking a lead role in the world’s first large-scale autonomous driving pilot project that will find 100 self-driving Volvos negotiating everyday driving tasks on 30 miles of public roads around Gothenburg, Sweden.
The specter of life with self-driving cars presents its challenges, not the least of which is consumer distrust of such systems and the concern we will lose the driving enjoyment and sense of freedom that automobiles have brought us since their invention. While we may be in a new era that finds technology impacting most facets of daily life – with this technology increasingly making its way to our cars – the love of driving remains a priority for many.
This is supported by a recent Volvo survey in which a vast majority of those asked said autonomous car technology should respect the love of driving and, in fact, autonomous cars should include a steering wheel even if they are capable of driving themselves. At the same time, most felt that technology in autonomous cars would make their travel time more productive. In other words, we want these worlds to coexist. There’s a lot to read into that …perhaps from the driver’s seat at 65 mph, no?
As the auto industry rushes headlong into autonomous vehicles and technologies there are some important learning curves ahead. Google admitted as much when one of its self-driving cars was involved in a mild fender-bender with a bus…not necessarily the fault of the self-driving Google car, but no doubt caused by reacting to an unfolding situation in ways different than a human driver would react. Humans understand that mass-heavy buses do not always yield right-of-way. On-board computers wouldn’t necessarily know this unless taught.
Teaching autonomous cars how to anticipate the actions of human drivers in varying real-world scenarios is critical, and this kind of deep learning is data-intensive. This is being addressed by many companies including video game-notable NVIDIA, which works with automakers on advanced electronics systems.
The company’s new DRIVE PX-2 graphics processing unit (GPU), the world’s first in-car artificial intelligence supercomputer, aims to provide 360-degree situational awareness and facilitate the deep learning required for cars to sense their surroundings and navigate autonomously, using processing power equivalent to that of 150 MacBook Pros. DRIVE PX-2 delivers up to 24 trillion deep learning operations per second, over 10 times more computational horsepower than the previous-generation product.
It’s a dangerous world out there with road debris, varying weather conditions, and unpredictable drivers. These are just some of the challenges as autonomous cars use artificial intelligence to drive better than humans. Unlike video games, there are real consequences on the road and supercomputer power like this will help keep autonomous drivers…um, passengers...safe.
The Swiss think tank and mobility lab Rinspeed is noted for its quirky and innovative takes on future mobility. Its latest effort, the trans-urban SUV Budii concept, does not disappoint. Based on BMW’s electric i3, riding on 19-inch Bobert alloys and clothed in bright anthracite paint with a terrain-mapping laser scanner atop its roof, Budii seeks to redefine human-machine interaction as it explores the future world of autonomous driving.
According to Rinspeed, a new generation of self-driving cars will do as we do, learning every day and getting better at mastering the array of complex challenges involved in the art of driving. By assimilating lessons learned from its daily drive experiences, interaction with other vehicles on its routes, and information from its surroundings, Budii will evolve to become a cognitive and intuitive autopilot…a sort of proactive companion. Or so Rinspeed imagines.
One of the signature elements in the Budii concept is a 7-axis robotic arm that repositions the steering wheel from driver to front passenger as desired. During automated driving it can park the steering wheel in the center so it’s out of the way, or even position the steering wheel as a handy table. Removable plexi worktables are also part of the package to enable work or doodling during an automated drive.
Refreshingly candid in the face of ever-optimistic and simplistic perspectives on automated driving, Rinspeed head Frank Rinderknecht shares that while autonomous driving will offer the opportunity to reduce traffic accidents and make traffic more people-friendly, even the best technology will not be perfect and that’s something we will have to accept. His take is that we should develop a healthy, but not blind, trust in the new capabilities of self-driving hardware and software being developed for the cars of the future.
Just about every major automaker is developing automated vehicle technology. Experts predict we’ll see the first highly automated production vehicles by 2020 with fully automated cars expected by 2025. Automation will come incrementally with more of these technologies becoming available with each new model year.
Already, vehicles with early forms of self-driving technology are in dealer showrooms, such as adaptive cruise control that automatically maintains a safe following distance from the car ahead and parking assistance that helps maneuver a car into parking spaces. Other available automated technologies include Lane Departure Warning, Obstacle Warning, and Blind Spot Detection. While most are passive systems that alert a driver to a hazardous condition, in the future these will be able to automatically take corrective action if a driver fails to react.
Most of the near-term technology augments a human driver in controlling the vehicle, similar to the autopilot used in airliners that allows the driver to take over at any time. Since today's computers and other electronics are now quicker than the human brain, on-board systems could also provide control in an emergency situation.
As an example of what’s coming soon, BMW's Traffic Light Assistant will communicate with traffic lights to inform a driver of the speed needed to match the timing of traffic lights. In the future, this could be done automatically. Traffic Jam Assistant, debuting in the BMW i3, maintains a safe distance between vehicles, controls speed and steering, stops the car in heavy traffic if necessary. As long as the driver keeps one hand on the steering wheel, it keeps the car in its lane at speeds up to 25 mph.
There are several challenges to automated vehicles, not the least of which is cost since LIDAR (laser radar), ultrasound sensors, computer vision systems, and other electronics are expensive. However, following the known trajectory of advanced electronics in all facets of our lives, prices will surely drop dramatically with widespread use.