An autonomous vehicle is capable of sensing its environment and operating without human involvement while carrying some kind of cargo.
The Tesla is well-known for its self-driving capabilities: It can park itself, drive on highways using auto-pilot, and drive through parking lots to pick up passengers. In 2020, several cars with autonomous features will come to market. Cars aren’t the only autonomous vehicles, though. Trucks and ships are being developed with assistive technologies, which will require less direct human involvement while operating vehicles.
As the autonomous vehicle industry starts to mature, there are numerous business opportunities for both startups and established companies. However the commercial sector moved faster than regulators, and in early 2020 U.S. lawmakers proposed a new regulatory framework to govern self-driving vehicles.
There are different levels of what’s considered “self-driving.” The Society of Automotive Engineers drafted a generally accepted definition of autonomous driving that goes from level zero to level five. The most advanced publicly available vehicles reached level two functionality, like Tesla’s Autopilot or Cadillac’s Super Cruise.
Autonomous vehicles rely on internal software and sensors to perform basic functions. However, in order to achieve Level 5 autonomy—where vehicles drive themselves, along with other vehicles across all of our roads, highways, alleys, bridges, and driveways—they’ll need to sense and communicate with each other. This will require additional work, and some questions still remain: Should vehicles talk to each other as part of a big, moving network? Or should vehicles communicate with infrastructure to send and receive all the data they need? (Or would there need to be some combination of the two?)
Vehicles will need to communicate with one another and to the road infrastructure to get real-time information on the road conditions and collaboration among vehicles. This will create new data streams to optimize road usage. Audi, Qualcomm and the Virginia Department of Transportation are testing cars that will interface with construction zones and traffic lights.
Multiple cars will travel together in groups of “platoons” in very short distances of each other, increasing the efficiency of communication between the vehicles and the roads on which they travel. The platoon approach is a frequent method of increasing the throughput on existing “dumb” highways—so vehicles communicate directly with one another. The platoon would require only one lead driver, or no driver, depending on the level of autonomation.
Waze’s user-generated traffic data is an example of collaborative sourcing of transport information. Cadillac’s Super Cruise semi-autonomous driving service relies on similar technology, using vehicles equipped with expensive LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) that scans the roadway ahead and provides accurate mapping of the road. Cars using the Super Cruise function that follow behind don’t need to have their own LIDAR equipment.
Network protocols for vehicles and infrastructure communication must be developed, and it needs to be unfailingly reliable, fast, and secure. Vehicle communication protocols will likely intersect with 5G technology and node-based/mesh networks. Researchers are exploring Vehicular Ad Hoc Networks, which uses node-based rebroadcasting of information—a method that could potentially reduce the need for fixed infrastructure and could allow moving vehicles to take their network with them into areas with no connectivity. Gotenna uses similar local mesh networking to allow cell phone communication in areas without cell service.
The pace of advancement slowed when Waymo and Uber entered a heated lawsuit over trade secret infringement and because of limited employee mobility across companies. The companies settled the suit, and a general truce emerged—but the freedom of information and exchange of ideas has been reduced.
Things perked up in November 2019 when General Motors CEO Mary Barra boldly announced that GM would restructure the company and focus on its electric and autonomous vehicle programs. Nonetheless, GM-backed Cruise delayed the 2019 launch of its autonomous taxi service in San Francisco to focus on further testing, without citing a new launch date.
Widespread adoption and use of autonomous vehicles promises fewer accidents, lower energy costs, optimized driving efficiency and reduced traffic congestion.
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