When thinking of autonomous cars, many of us jump straight to David Hasselhoff talking to Kit in the 1980s (for the Millennials, just Google Knight Rider!). This type of driverless car is the dream and, depending on which report you read, some think we are not too far away from commercial use of fully autonomous vehicles.
However, whilst massive investment has helped progression no end, the arrival of a true driverless car that doesn’t need any type of human interaction doesn’t look to be around the corner just yet. Elon Musk (co-founder and CEO of Tesla) claims that Teslas will have full self-driving capability by the end of 2020. However, experts say that the technology is still too unpredictable and expensive with the chance of cars being able to navigate as a human would being near impossible. John Krafick, the CEO of Waymo (Google’s self-driving car project) echoes the fact that autonomy will have some restraints.
Instead of thinking about fully automated vehicles, it is perhaps best to see the technology in stages of automation.
• Level 1 automation
some small steering or acceleration tasks are performed by the car without human intervention, but everything else is fully under human control
• Level 2 automation
is like advance cruise control or original autopilot system on some Tesla vehicles, the car can automatically take safety actions but the driver needs to stay alert at the wheel
• Level 3 automation
still requires a human driver, but the human is able to put some “safety-critical functions” to the vehicle, under certain traffic or environmental conditions. This poses some potential dangers as humans pass the major tasks of driving to or from the car itself, which is why some car companies (Ford included) are interested in jumping directly to level 4
• Level 4 automation
is a car that can drive itself almost all the time without any human input, but might be programmed not to drive in unmapped areas or during severe weather. This is a car you could sleep in.
• Level 5 automation
means full automation in all conditions
Whilst a level 5 develop is somewhere in the future, hitting a level 3 or 4 automation project could be well within the grasp of the leading companies. In fact, this is most likely what Elon Musk is referring to with his claims. We already have driver free shuttles operating in cities like Detroit, driverless university campus run-arounds and self-driving machines on farms to name a few successful pilots.
Within these stages could be several other AI developments outside of just autonomy. For example, connected vehicles will rely on vast amounts of data. With hundreds of sensors applications of AI will be able to alert us of any problems before they happen, and we’re left stranded in the middle of a Highway.
There are even potential applications in marketing. In the digital age, marketing is all about data. Just imagine if social media feeds flag that someone is going on holiday and whilst in their car, they are recommended the best travel money exchange stores near them. It could even flag restaurants as they drive past them. AI can know exactly what a driver needs and wants.
Other possible uses for AI are in risk and manufacturing.
Waymo, Tesla and Baidu Apollo are three of the main players in the driverless vehicle industry. Below are the key developments and progress for each of them.
In May 2019, Waymo announced a partnership with Lyft whereby they would deploy 10 vehicles in the Phoenix area. Formerly known as the Google Self Driving Car Project set up in 2009, Waymo’s mission is to make it safe and easy for people and things to move around. They believe that fully self-driving technology can both improve mobility and give people the freedom to get around whilst saving thousands of lives by negating traffic crashes. “We’re not building a car, we’re building a driver.”
Waymo design all the core components of their technology in-house and see themselves as being able to advance vehicles much faster than flashier competitors like Tesla or Uber. Their sensors have a high amount of computational power, hence the rather large exterior but they value functionality more than they do looks.
A foundation of machine learning from its association to Google Alphabet gives Waymo a very solid infrastructure.
Probably the most well-known company in the world of autonomous and electric vehicles, Tesla have progressed the field significantly in the last decade.
Elon Musk stated at the start of 2019 that all vehicles now have the hardware installed to be fully self-driven. All that is required is that they improve the software but there is a long way to go with this.
Right now, Tesla vehicles are only considered to be at Level 2 automation. This is a more advanced assistance system than most other vehicles currently on the road. Whilst Musk has promised this will improve, it is unlikely this can get to Level 5 in the near future as he predicted. He says that by the middle of 2020, Tesla’s autonomous system will have improved to the point where drivers will not have to pay attention to the road.
We should note that Musk originally said he would have Level 5 vehicles on the road by the end of 2018. Tesla are definitely helping to drive the technology but common expectation is that it will be a good few years yet, but Musk’s claims are realised.
The Baidu Apollo platform is an open source self-driving vehicle technology system. It provides a hardware and software solution including cloud data services as well as a vehicle hardware platform. Baidu offers the source code and capabilities in obstacle perception, trajectory planning, vehicle control and operating systems.
In 2019 Baidu announced that Apollo Enterprise for vehicles will be put into mass production. It is already being used by 130 partners around the world and one of its Chinese users plan to deploy 3 autonomous vehicles by 2021.
The Apollo 3.5 release now supports “complex urban and suburban driving environments” pushing it closer to Level 5 automation capability. It is already being utilised by companies and piloted by Walmart for grocery deliveries.
Baidu has grand plans such as 100 robo-taxis covering 130 miles of city in China which are all able to communicate with the road infrastructure like traffic lights.
When companies talk about autonomous vehicles they are probably being quite optimistic to ensure they get the required investment and interest in the future of the industry. We also need to be aware of potential regulatory developments for autonomous vehicle deployment such as who is liable if something does go wrong e.g. an accident on a busy road.
It is very likely that within the next decade we will have some sort of truly autonomous vehicle in a city somewhere if companies can handle the scepticism. The level 3 and 4 automation will definitely continue to prosper as AI becomes more a part of everyday life and it is expected this will become available in the majority of city environments.