The idea of self-driving and autonomous cars have captivated our imagination for decades. Seeds of the technology can be found as far back as the 1950s. Fast forward to today, and the incredible developments made in this field mark a beginning of a new era for automobiles. Autonomous technology is still in its infancy to be sure. But, companies and people from all over the world are hard at work moving it forward.
What These Concepts Mean
There's a somewhat confusing but important distinction between “self-driving” and “autonomous” driving technology. While the two concepts are similar, "self-driving" refers to a vehicle’s ability to complete certain driving related tasks. A good example is lane-keeping technology, which assists in keeping a vehicle centered in the correct lane. "Autonomous" means a vehicle is able to handle all driving duties with no input from a human driver.
According to the Society of Automotive Engineers, automated driving technology has five different levels:
Level 0 – No Automation.
Level 1 – Driver Assistance.
Level 2 – Partial Automation.
Level 3 – Conditional Automation.
Level 4 – High Automation.
Level 5 – Full Automation.
How are vehicles able to “see” the world around them? Both self-driving and autonomous driving systems make use of advanced technology. Companies use a full suite of electronics including machine learning, cameras, radar, LIDAR, and ultrasonic sensors. These elements work together to perceive, interpret, and control the vehicle.
Despite what you may have heard, there are currently no autonomous vehicles for sale. A growing number of vehicles have impressive self-driving capabilities, but none are fully autonomous. Why? The technology simply isn't there yet. Unlocking the code to autonomous driving is the aim of some of the largest and most powerful companies in the world.
History of the Technology
“The idea of automated vehicles that can drive themselves is not a new concept,” said Sam Abuelsamid, Principal Analyst leading mobility research at Navigant Research. That idea goes back to at least the 1950s, when General Motors was working with a concept called the Firebird II. That car worked by following a magnetic track in the road and was tested in San Diego, where they took a stretch of roadway and embedded magnets in it.
“Fast forward to DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and the Grand Challenge event in 2004," continued Abuelsamid. "That event coincided with when technology started to get to a point where you could tell a vehicle where you wanted to go it would drive there.”
The Grand Challenge was an exciting showcase for the incredible potential of autonomous technology. Almost two dozen teams from across the country competed in the 2005 Grand Challenge. Five custom-built, full autonomous vehicles completed the daunting 132-mile course, helping to launch a new wave of interest in the idea of driverless transportation.
“After the DARPA challenge, manufacturers like GM and Volkswagen continued to work on this technology in their research labs," said Abuelsamid. "[Members of] Google attended the Grand Challenge and decided to develop something that could benefit society and become an interesting business. They launched their self-driving car project 2009.”
Key Players in the Autonomous Technology Field
Some of the major players in the autonomous technology field you've heard of, and some you likely have not. There are large, well-known brands like Uber and Amazon working on this problem. The Google car project inspired by the DARPA Grand Challenge became a company called Waymo, now one of the field's most important companies. Smaller companies like May Mobility, Argo AI, and Zoox are also making a significant impact. Leaders from the car industry include General Motors, Volkswagen, Ford, Tesla, and Hyundai.
Tesla has been all about disruption and reinvention since day one. Autopilot continues the brand’s tradition of pushing the envelope forward. Its impressive capabilities and ease of use has made it the most used Level 3 system in the world. While not fully autonomous, it can simultaneous handle cruise control, lane and distance keeping, and lane changes. In low speed situations, some Tesla vehicles are capable of some automatic steering and can be summoned from a phone app using a feature called Enhanced Summon.
Based in San Francisco, California, Cruise is working on a range of self-driving tech solutions. Their newest innovation is an upcoming all-electric self-driving vehicle called the Cruise Origin. As proof of their potential, the company was purchased by GM back in 2016. The company has raised billions of dollars in funding and manufactures its technology in a dedicated GM plant.
Our modern world is built on our ability to move about with speed and ease, and autonomous driving technology has the potential to reinvent how we travel.
“Traffic congestion is a huge problem, and so is safety,” said Abuelsamid. “Human error is a factor in around 90% of crashes. A lot of those situations are ones where a computer could intervene and help out. Drunk driving, distracted driving, inattention, or drowsiness are all situations where an automated system can do better than a human driver.”
While you're waiting for autonomous cars to become mainstream, one way to help prepare yourself for the kind of hazards Abuelsamid is talking about it to take a defensive driving class. In these lessons, you'll learn how to stay focused while driving and what to do if you notice an impaired driver on the road. It's not quite as foolproof as having a robot drive for you, but for now, it's a great start.
Something else to consider is the enormous amount of land used for parking spaces, lots, and garages. Autonomous technology has the potential to reduce the number of vehicles on the road. If user-friendly autonomous transportation was widely available, how else could we use that land? How could it be re-purposed? What would it be like if people didn't have to commute as often? Transportation is necessary in our modern lives, but autonomous technology has the potential to drastically improve it.
For Abuelsamid, the prospect of autonomous vehicles is an attractive one. While he feels autonomous vehicles are a long way off, he’s hopeful more of it will become integrated into our daily lives.
“I definitely look forward autonomous technology being implemented someday. I love to drive, but a commuting isn’t my idea of fun. Fun is going out on a country road in my Mazda Miata. When I was commuting to work, I would have loved to have autonomous vehicle take care of that.”