Even without a debate over we really want our cars to drive themselves, autonomous vehicles keep gaining ground. There aren’t any on the market yet, but the momentum is clearly building. Why? Because the technology is moving fast, and both researchers and automakers see a path to a lucrative new market. Plus, kids—mine included—don’t seem to be all that keen on driving anyway.
The driver-free concept is simple enough, but the tech is cutting edge
. The cars talk to other cars and the surrounding terrain with sensors, and also stay in touch with centralized command posts. Intersections will bristle with cameras, radar and sensors to control traffic flow and prevent collisions. Traffic lights will become a quaint memory.
GM’s Cadillac division expects to produce mass-market partially autonomous cars by 2015;
Audi and BMW have shown self-driving concept cars, and Audi had a TT drive itself up Pikes Peak. BMW has an interim technology called ConnectedDrive Connect that offers semi-autonomous driving. The company says it could be on the road in a few years;
Google has a fleet of autonomous Toyota Priuses and other cars (see photo below), which together have covered a million miles. With Google’s enthusiastic lobbying, Nevada has legalized autonomous driving, and California seems to be close to taking that step;
Volvo is has completed its SARTRE study of autonomous driving, which concentrates on "platooning," moving self-driven vehicles in closely spaced "road trains" led by a single professional driver. It's estimated that platooning has the potential of 20 percent energy savings. Part of SARTRE is an in-depth look at consumer attitudes. Some studies show that 18 to 37-year-olds are the most accepting, and some drivers are apprehensive about the idea;
ABI Research says carmakers spent more than $10 billion on “advanced driver assistance systems” in 2011. The company said the number could jump to $130 billion by 2016.
Here, on video, is the Audi TT technology that successfully assaulted Pikes Peak:
Further support came from IEEE, the technology trade group, which identified autonomous cars as “the most promising form of intelligent transportation.” The group said that self-driving vehicles would be 75 percent of the traffic stream by 2040. “Since we can use the existing network of roadways, autonomous vehicles are advantageous for changing how the majority of the world will travel on a daily basis,” said Dr. Alberto Broggi, an IEEE senior member and a professor at the University of Parma. N 2010, Dr. Broggi directed a project that saw two driverless cars traveling solo from Parma to Shanghai, a distance of 8,000 miles.
I talked to Dr, Azim Eskandarian, an IEEE member and director of the Center for Intelligent Systems at George Washington University. “I believe that the technology is here,” he told me. “The engineering and science needed to make autonomous cars practical in regular traffic situations is available.” He cautioned that today’s cost for sensors, actuators, radar and the other necessary hardware is high, but coming down. “Cost is an issue, but not a show stopper,” he said.
A bigger obstacle is social, Dr. Eskandarian said. “Autonomous driving may not be for everyone,” he said. “Some people enjoy driving, and don’t want to give up control. For others, the convenience of being able to name a destination and have your car take you there will outweigh that. Think of the advantage for some populations, including the handicapped and impaired drivers, or the elderly who have trouble seeing at night.” The blind or quadriplegic could be back in the driver’s seat.
Not all the technical hurdles involve the autonomous systems, which seem well on the road to commercialization. Dr. Eskandarian points out that cars will need “a higher level of reliability and robustness.” Since cars will likely travel more closely together than they do currently, fail-safe braking is one essential to avoid a chain collision. Also, it’s hard to see autonomy getting much traction until sensor technology is widely installed on cars—they have to talk with each other for it to work. In the near future, we may have autonomous lanes to complement HOV, with cars traveling only a few part as their “drivers” text on their smart phones.
Dr. Eskandarian said that Japan, where navigation systems are hugely popular and automation is a big thing, is making the greatest forward progress in adopting autonomous driving. But Japanese and German companies often base their autonomous tech centers in the U.S. because of the expertise here.
We already have early-stage self-driving technology in our cars—including lane departure warnings, adaptive cruise control
, collision avoidance and more. In a few years, most cars will probably be able to detect hazards ahead and commandeer the brake pedal. “Active safety” is the new watchword, and Europe is taking the lead in getting it on board cars.
The main question doesn’t seem to be whether autonomous cars will happen but when. “I’m pretty sure all this will come,” Dr. Eskandarian said. “It’s hard to say which country will introduce it first. I don’t have the timetable.”