Autonomous Cars: Are Driverless Vehicles Nearing Reality?
Autonomous Cars: Are Driverless Vehicles Nearing Reality?
Car manufacturers such as Tesla, BMW, Nissan, Toyota, and more make us feel like self-driving cars are right around the corner. Each year, events like CES and the Detroit Auto Show bring new auto technologies to life, and the autonomous car seems to be the most interesting of them all.
But, while the technology is indeed evolving, specialists still believe there will be years before we will see one of these smart vehicles on the roads, driving without human assistance. The problem is not just represented by technology; there is also a strong mentality shift that has to happen so the buyers will accept autonomous cars in their lives.
Right now, the American market (and even the European one) is dominated by SUVs, trucks, and crossovers. People like to have powerful cars, and the low gas prices don’t discourage this preference. As a result, if you compare the price of an SUV that comes on a tested platform, with the incredibly high price of an autonomous car (the first designs will be expensive, at least at this state), the result is clear.
Still, the progress is inching forward, and we expect to see the first vehicles without a steering wheel or pedals by the year 2020. These will be mostly deployed in urban areas, where it’s easier to control the sensors and keep the communication with the car at optimal standards.
But before we talk any further about the future of this technology, let’s have a look at the past and present situation.
A Quick History Lesson
In this section, we’re going to create a timeline of the most important events in the history of driverless cars technology.
1925 - The first self-driving car
The idea of a vehicle that doesn’t need a driver is not new. In reality, it started with the invention of the car, and in 1925, the first prototype was presented to the world. Francis Houdina, an American inventor and the owner of Houdina Radio Control, invented a radio controlled car that could start its engine, sound the horn, and even shift gears without human assistance. The inventor even drove it in Manhattan, without steering the wheel.
1969 – The Robo-chauffeur
While no self-driving vehicle was built in 1969, it is a very important year because John McCarthy (one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence) wrote a paper in which he described a vehicle similar to modern self-driving cars.
His paper talks about an automatic chauffeur capable of driving on public roads using the information from a video camera. Furthermore, this vehicle should be able to receive and follow a destination (inputted using a keyboard) and understand when it has to change lanes, roads, or even slow down or speed up as needed.
As you can see, the vehicle described in this paper is, more or less, the vehicle we hope to see on the streets in a few years. It also stays at the basis of all driverless cars built up until today.
1995 – No hands across America
The “No hands across America” is a trip taken by researchers Dean Pomerleau and Todd Jochem, who invented a self-driving car system (while working in the Navlab structure), and tested it by driving it from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to San Diego, California. The system is actually an autonomous minivan that required human assistance for speed control and brake, but it made the trip!
YouTube video: https://youtu.be/ilP4aPDTBPE
The early 2000s - Self-parking systems
While the self-driving car was still a distant dream at this point in history, car manufacturers developed a smart car parking system that uses sensors and smart technologies to assist with parking the car. Of course, nowadays this is a basic requirement in high-end vehicles, but back then, it was a huge step forward that showed technology and driving can work together.
The first to implement these systems were Toyota (the Prius can parallel park by itself since 2003) and Lexus. These were followed by Ford and BMW in 2009 and 2010.
2009 - Google’s Autonomous Car
Google is one of the big players working on an autonomous vehicle, and they started the project in 2009 working in secret at what today is known as Waymo. The project is going so well, that, as of 2018, they take test drives, with human passengers, in urban environments.
2013 – Other Automotive Companies Join In
About this time in history, most major automotive players start working on their own self-driving prototypes. Still, the most recent release date is 2019 (GM), so it will be a while until we actually can see some results. However, the research for an autonomous vehicle did yield results as modern cars are now improved with interesting features such as:
Staying within the lanes and more.
Key Players in the Industry
At the present moment, even though there is no self-driving car that can legally drive on public roads, there are several powerful automotive companies that work diligently on making this a reality. We’ll discuss the most important ones and their accomplishments in the niche.
A company that’s synonymous everywhere in the world with fast and easy transportation, Uber takes things a step forward, and already has working self-driving cars in play. For instance, they already have self-driving trucks operating in Arizona (they have a deal with this state, so they can test their cars in public). These still need human assistance, but the drive is a lot less stressful for the trucker.
Uber’s self-driving trucks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqwtibdHSZM
Uber also wants to create a self-driving taxi system, where the user doesn’t have to deal with a human driver. They first started with a fleet of 20 Ford Fusions, in 2016, that was tested in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but these cars had a safety driver behind the wheel. Based on what they learned from this experiment, Uber moved to a new fleet of self-driving cars, but this time, they used the Volvo XC90. However, these cars were not as easy to control as Uber desired, so they ran into light traffic accidents and disobeyed traffic rules. This and other frictions deteriorated the relationship with Pittsburgh authorities, and Uber’s license for autonomous vehicles testing was removed. This is when they decided to move the testing to the state of Arizona.
In March 2017, there were a couple of crashes involving Uber autonomous vehicles, but it turns out the main culprit was human error, not the software or hardware of the vehicle. Furthermore, in 2017 Uber also extends testing to Canada, sending two driverless cars on Toronto’s streets.
In March 2018 there was another traffic accident, but this one ended with the loss of one human life. As a result, Uber ceased all testing in Arizona. For now, Uber didn’t release a new date for testing, but we know they bought 24,000 Volvo XC90 SUVs in November 2017, with the intent to release them in between 2019 and 2021.
They also partnered up with Nvidia, which will provide Uber with the technology to control an entire fleet of self-driving cars.
This automotive manufacturer may have joined the trend a bit later, but they learned fast, and now, they already have a properly driverless car ready to be launched in 2019 (the car is ready for tests in San Francisco, where it will face all sorts of traffic conditions). The Cruise AV is a vehicle that doesn’t come equipped with steering wheel or pedals, and doesn’t have any other controls that will allow a human passenger to drive it. The only control is a touchscreen interface.
Furthermore, this is an all-electric vehicle, based on the Bolt EV platform, furnished with various safety mechanisms, including closing and opening its own doors.
YouTube presentation: https://youtu.be/MvP82IsGqNc
The vehicle is designed to be a part of the GM-operated ride-sharing service that works just like Lyft or Uber, only without a driver. A person will be able to call the Cruise AV using a phone app that also allows users to introduce their ideal temperature settings and even music preferences. This way, when your ride arrives, everything will be designed to your liking.
Their driverless car is called Waymo and is one of the most advanced projects in the industry right now. The cars are already driving on public roads and the tests are done with human passengers. Even though it might seem too advanced, this phase of development is normal considering they’ve been working on it since 2009.
They started with Toyota Prius vehicles (in 2009) and moved to Lexus RX450h in 2012, when they also introduced their self-driving technology to complex city streets. In 2015, Google developed Firefly, a cute-looking, completely autonomous vehicle designed from the ground up (it had sensors, steering, braking, computers, but no pedals or wheel).
In 2016, the project was named Waymo and in 2017, Google moved to bigger vehicles such as Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans. This is also the year to launch the ‘early rider program’, where residents of Phoenix, Arizona could join the public trial.
In 2018, Google partnered up with Jaguar to create the first premium electric self-driving vehicle: the Jaguar I-PACE. The plan is to start testing this year and add 20,000 such vehicles to the Waymo fleet in the next few years.
Overall, the Waymo cars have driven over 7 million miles on public roads in the USA without getting into or causing an accident, and in 2017, they ditched the safety-driver in minivans that scour through Arizona’s roads.
Besides being associated with electric cars and green driving, Tesla is also one of the pioneers in the autonomous driving program. Right now, all their models have autopilot capabilities (including the Model 3), but the cars still need human assistance.
The autopilot system on Tesla knows how to self-park, it can be summoned from and to the garage, knows how to exit the freeway or change freeways without requiring human input, and adapts to speed traffic conditions by itself.
Still, for now, Tesla’s system is not 100% autonomous; it’s more of an enhanced autopilot mode that requires the driver to stay alert and ready to intervene in case of emergency.
Tesla’s autopilot system: https://vimeo.com/192179726
The company well-known for producing expensive smartphones and similar gadgets is also involved in creating autonomous technology. They are working with artificial intelligence (AI), but according to the CEO (Tim Cook), the main focus is not necessarily on vehicles.
However, if we consider the fact that the company has more self-driving cars in test than Waymo and Uber (45 registered at the DMV), we can say they are making progress in this niche. The interesting aspect is that they don’t work on developing the car; they’re only fine-tuning the technology. This is why their fleet is made of Lexus RX450h SUVs (and not Apple cars). However, the company is highly secretive about their work and all we know by now, is that they added 18 new vehicles to their fleet in 2018.
There is a lot of power in minding your own business and working on projects without gathering any attention until the opportune moment. That’s exactly what Volvo has been doing for the last several years, and now they are partnered with Autoliv, Zenuity, and Ericsson to create a platform that integrates with vehicle software. There is even an innovation lab (run by the mentioned partnership) that encourages collaboration with startups in the niche.
They even started a trial program (Drive me) that will take place in Sweden and will use the data to release their first vehicle with self-driving technology in 2021.
BMW also teamed up with companies working on new technologies such as Mobileye (camera and sensors developer) and Intel, and plans on releasing a working self-driving car by 2021. The car is called iNEXT (an all-electric level 3 vehicle) and is designed to be the start for ride-sharing fleets controlled by computers (something similar to Uber’s plans).
For this year, the German carmaker plans to increase their test fleet (based in a Californian BMW base) of self-driving vehicles to 80.
They partnered with a Silicon Valley startup called Aurora to work on the building of a self-driving car fleet. The aim is to create autonomous taxis that will work in several cities by the year 2021. Furthermore, they are also working with Nvidia, to create an intelligent co-pilot system that will provide driving assistance.
However, the group is still struggling to create fully-electric cars and they are working hard to make their designs more eco-friendly. There are also rumours that there is a partnership between Apple and Volkswagen for an autonomous vehicle, but nothing is yet confirmed.
Where are we right now?
As you can see, most manufacturers plan on releasing a functional version of a self-driving car by 2020 or 2021, which is not exactly far. However, before we rejoice at the thought of a stress-free driving experience, we believe it’s best to explain the five levels of autonomy in vehicles. Overall, there are five levels of autonomous driving:
Level 1 – Driver assistance, where the technology supports the human driver but the car cannot take decisions by itself;
Level 2 - Partly Automated, where the car can take over but the driver still needs to stay alert and is responsible for operating the vehicle;
Level 3 – Highly Automated Driving, when the driver can submit control to the car for extended periods of time. In this situation, a driver may be able to browse the phone or read, but can’t lose alertness;
Level 4 – Fully Automated Driving, when the technology is fully integrated and the vehicle knows how to drive most of the time. In this case, the driver may take a nap without worrying about accidents;
Level 5 – Full Automation, where you don’t need a driving license and the car is fully in charge of the driving experience.
Right now, most vehicles in testing are engineered and tested to achieve a level 3, and none is capable of reaching level 4. So, the vehicles that will be available on our roads by 2021 won’t be fully autonomous. This will be just an intermediary step to the technology of the future.
However, there are some examples worth mentioning, and below you can read about the most interesting one.
The Flying taxi of Dubai
Dubai is well-known as a region of extravagance and luxury, so if there is to be a flying taxi, this is the best place to have it. Not to mention, they definitely need it, considering the state of traffic jams in the city.
While this taxi is not a car (it’s a drone capable of carrying one person of max 220lbs), it has self-driving technology already integrated. The user only has to input the destination, and the drone will do the rest of the job, choosing the quickest flight path.
Dubai’s flying taxi: https://youtu.be/SGvr0jiUmAE
The drone can fly at about 100mph and has a maximum range of 31 miles. Of course, the device is electric and can fly for about 30 minutes on one charge. While it may not be a great vehicle for a long drive, it works great in a crowded city, where you need to avoid traffic jams and move faster.
Autonomous Vehicle-ready Countries
Yes, the technology is evolving rapidly and we may actually have self-driving vehicles by 2020, but where exactly would we drive them?
AVs (autonomous vehicles) need a lot more than just the car technology to function at full capacity on public roads. They also need good road infrastructure, infrastructure that supports electric vehicles and supportive authorities that will pass laws to include this new type of vehicle in the administrative system.
The process is more complicated than just releasing a new car to the market, and not all countries are prepared to face it. However, some regions are highly enthusiastic about it, and below you can learn about the top 5, as assessed by KPMG.
It may come as a surprise, but the Netherlands is the number one most ready country to start using driverless cars. They have the best road infrastructure, with the best-maintained roads in the world, and have the highest density of charging points for EVs (electrical vehicles). Furthermore, the population is open to new technology, and accepts the idea of a self-driving vehicle.
Finally, they scored high on regulations and government involvement in AV infrastructure, and the authorities have approved various testing of AVs, with human passengers.
The citizens here are the most open to the idea of an autonomous vehicle, and their legislation and policy towards EVs and AVs are very friendly. Furthermore, their Road Traffic Act already allows the testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads.
Below - Singapore's first driverless shuttle transport system.
People here are open to new technology (leaving other countries behind) and their infrastructure earned high scores. However, they don’t have as many charging stations for EVs as the Netherlands.
As you can imagine, the USA is a powerful hub for companies involved in the development of AV technology, so it scores high points on innovations in the niche. However, Americans are not sold on the idea of electric cars, so the country has a poor infrastructure of charging stations.
The country is first on the number of test locations for AVs, but these are usually isolated, with few people actually living there. This keeps the general public in the dark when it comes to this amazing technology.
This is another country where innovation and technology are highly scored, but the legislation is not designed to accommodate AV technology (yet). This changed in 2015, when the government allowed manufacturers to conduct trials at all levels of automation, on their public roads.
Below - driverless bus in Sweden
The UK still needs to work on infrastructure, but they rank high on technology and innovation. Furthermore, there are many development hubs and industry partnerships that support research in the niche.
The people are rated as being acceptant of change and the policy and legislation favor the technology (there is no need for a special permit to operate driverless cars on public roads).
Pros & Cons
Given the fact that the technology is evolving, there is no doubt that we will see autonomous vehicles on public roads soon enough. It may take a while for the technology to be widely accepted, but as you can see, there are already entire countries ready to give it a go.
This is why it’s best that we are all acquainted with both the good and the bad of AVs.
In a world where cars drive guided by sensors and automated systems, there will be no traffic jams, no accidents, and no one would ever get mad in traffic. This is possible because AVs will be equipped with navigational systems that can communicate to a centre or with other cars, in order to learn the fastest and less-crowded route to get you to your destination.
Even more, because every car will be able to calculate ahead, there will be no need to have speed limits, circulation signs, and any other systems designed for human drivers. This is why commute will take less time and passengers will get to enjoy the ride.
Another important aspect of this system is the parking problem. Nowadays, it’s a true adventure to find a free parking spot in a city in most corners of the world. Drivers are forced to leave their cars wherever they can and walk to the destination, which sort of defeats the purpose of having a car. However, when cars will be able to drive by themselves, they will also find their own parking spot. Even better, a car may be used by other members of the family while you don’t need it and it will come to pick you up when summoned.
Finally, AVs represent a step in the right direction when it comes to protecting the environment and cleaning the air in crowded cities.
While the pros sound promising, we have a long road ahead until there will only be level 5 self-driving vehicles on the streets! Until then, we have to go through a transition period, where the autonomous systems will be heavily tested by the negligence and impulsivity of human drivers. But it’s also about the gaps in current technology and the possibility that such a car would adapt and react to unpredictable traffic conditions.
Accidents involving Self-driving Vehicles
Before we get to reach a rate of 0 traffic accidents, people will still die in car crashes. There are already several situations where people were killed by a vehicle commanded by an automated system, or self-driving vehicles caused serious accidents. Here are some of the most notorious cases:
Tesla – Their autopilot feature is designed to assist a human driver, not completely take control of the car on its own. However, there are plenty of situations when the driver ignored the warnings issued by the car (you get a luminous and audio warning if your hands are too long off the wheel) and got into a crash. The most recent case happened in March 2018, when the car (a Model X SUV) crashed in a concrete highway divider and burst into flames. The driver died shortly after the accident, in the hospital. There is also the situation when a Tesla Model crashed into a stationary object such as a stopped fire truck or a parked police car.
Uber – This Company’s testing program is currently in limbo because of a recent fatality, where a woman was struck dead by one of their autonomous vehicles. The accident happened in Tempe, Arizona, and the car was assisted by a human assistant, but sadly the fatality couldn’t be avoided. The case is still under investigation.
Waymo – Google’s self-driving vehicles were also on the front page of newspapers in May, 2018, when one of their cars got involved in a car crash. There were no fatalities, but the passenger of the self-driving car was hurt. Still, according to the preliminary report, it seems it wasn’t the Waymo car’s fault; the car was simply at the wrong place, at the wrong time.
These accidents can be the fault of another human driver who decided to not follow the road rules and presented an unexpected situation for the autonomous vehicle, but can also be the fault of software bugs and hardware malfunction.
For instance, the first Tesla crash, where the driver was killed, happened because both the software and the driver didn’t see a white truck against the clear sky. If the software had seen it, there is a chance the driver might have gotten away alive. After this, Tesla changed their autopilot system to take decisions relying mostly on sensors and less on the images captured by the cameras.
In the case of the recent Uber accident, it seems that the sensors picked up the pedestrian, but the software didn’t recognize it as something to be avoided, so it didn’t break. This is a very common conundrum in the world of autonomous vehicles, as the system must learn to differentiate between types of obstacles. If the system is too cautious, the car would slow down and stop for every rock on the road, which makes the technology useless.
Finally, there is the legal conundrum: who is responsible when a driverless car gets in a crash and causes damages or loss of lives? For now, all such accidents have settled outside of court, so legal systems all over the world (and USA’s especially) are to be tested by such a case.
Gaps in Technology
The current AI technology used even in the most advanced systems still has difficulties understanding the environment and differentiating between various situations. Not to mention that the technology on most cars is big, bulky, and quite expensive fact that will make the first publicly-available models extremely pricey.
Self-driving cars still have difficulties understanding the type of objects they see, there are still blind spots that can put pedestrians and other drivers in danger, and software is still buggy. Not to mention that a road where both self-driving vehicles and regular ones coexist is a very unpredictable one.
In our opinion, the technology has still to evolve and the first truly autonomous cars will be the ones to open the door towards testing in real-life conditions.
Another huge impediment to the spread of AV technology is the lack of fluid regulations and government involvement. For now, all tests have been done with the collaboration of local authorities, but there are no real regulations to how a self-driving vehicle should be considered by the law. But, big companies in the industry (Google, Lyft, Uber, Ford, Volvo) partnered up in order to help motivate the legal system to catch up.
There is also the problem of road infrastructure and the number of charging stations for electric vehicles (or the complete lack thereof). Even the USA is lagging behind at this chapter!
Besides the roads being difficult, there is also the problem of weather – heavy rain could (and usually does) interfere with the sensors mounted on the roof of a car. Also, snow can cover cameras and sensors, depriving the vehicle of its communication system. What will happen when the road conditions are not ideal for a self-driving vehicle?
Finally, one huge problem is related to cyber security. Given the fact that autonomous cars are controlled by computers and that several companies plan on building entire fleets of cars controlled from a computerized centre, what would happen if a hacker went through? How can we be sure such a thing won’t happen when hackers break even the most secure systems in the world?
A Few Final Words
Although we're primarily a company that specializes in UK private number plates, we really do love getting our teeth sunk into the wider intrustry. The only conclusion we can muster is that autonomous vehicles still have plenty of challenges to face before they will be completely safe to use on all public roads. However, we are looking forward to that future where all the horrible traffic problems we face today will be nothing more than stories to entertain the grandchildren! Technology will surely reign supreme and this is a technology that is here to stay.