The race for Driverless vehicles: where is the industry heading?

Google Waymo 2018

A Google self-driving car at the intersection of Junction Ave and North Rengstorff Ave in Mountain View. This picture was taken from the bike lane of North Rengstorff Ave.                           (Grendelkhan, Wikimedia, 2016)

This article was written by one of our passionate readers, Ms Rachel Everly. The opinions expressed within reflect only the writer’s views and not The European Sting’s position on the issue.

The disruption is imminent. But how far do we still have to go?

The ability to not just dream of a better future but to create one has been the hallmark of mankind since it started its sojourn on this planet. We, humans, have come a long way from our modest beginnings and are now firmly poised, and that too by a distance, as the most dominant living beings on Earth, if not, in the entire universe.

Our unmatched capabilities to think prodigiously coupled with the power to invent machines have allowed us to progress more with each generation. From building simple pulley mechanisms to developing computers that can perform immensely complex operations with the slightest bit of effort, we surely have come a long way.

But, our dream still carries on. We are at a stage where we build things that can rival us in abilities and outperform our limitations. Simply put, our ultimate dream is to create machines that are better versions of ourselves and we are within striking distance of achieving this milestone.

Intelligence is our most prized gift from nature. It has always seemed like this unique ability would remain locked up within us. However, the recent, mind-boggling advances in the fields of artificial intelligence, neural networks, and machine learning have now made it possible to inculcate some sort of a “brain” or thinking mechanism within the machines we use. Yes, we now have the power and technology to make smarter, capable and above all, life-changing devices.

And perhaps there is a more significant test of these advancements than our attempt at building driverless cars. This ambitious project is now being ferociously pursued, and some of the world’s most influential firms like Google, Uber, Tesla, Baidu, and NVidia are investing billions of dollars towards the aim of bringing commercially viable autonomous cars on public roads as soon as possible.

The economic incentive is pursuing this technology is massive. The mainstreaming of driverless cars could allow the U.S to rake in nearly $1.6 trillion in savings and globally, that figure could swell up significantly to reach the mark of a staggering $5.6 trillion per year. And that’s not it when it comes to the significant advantages that these autonomous cars could ensue.

Making roads safer, easing traffic congestion, improving delivery mechanisms and above all, freeing us from the monotonous chore of driving and allowing us to redirect that time towards something either more productive or entertaining are just some of the significant changes that could contribute towards making this world a better place.

However, no matter how dazzling and enthralling this scenario might seem like, we are still some distance away from realizing the dream of building cars with true autonomous capabilities. Let’s now look at how the industry is poised and the major obstacles impeding its way towards achieving its aim:

Where the industry stands

At the recently concluded CES ’18 held in Las Vegas, many companies held demos of their current capabilities in the driverless domain. There was a collaboration between two firms to provide a driverless car-hailing service to ferry passengers to the conference. Also, there was Toyota, who revealed their concept vehicle called the “E-Palette” a versatile, autonomous vehicle that is capable of performing of a wide variety of functions ranging from serving as mobile health service provider to a delivery van.

The conference also allowed people to get some glimpses of the vulnerabilities in the functioning limitations of these cars as many demos involving driverless vehicles got canceled due to the rainy weather. Unfortunately, the current level of autonomous driving technology cannot perform well in challenging weather conditions like when it’s raining or snowing. But, it’s just about not being able to perform in slippery conditions. Other problems need to be addressed.

The Data dilemma

It’s no big secret that most folks do not like to share their data with companies. Europe has been a notorious example of this scenario being played out for quite a while now. And with driverless cars being powered by infrastructure systems back at their manufacturer’s office, people are often wary of companies using their travel information for their personal gains.

Data is of immense value to firms in the current world as it can be leveraged to build a more conclusive profile of yourself and then target you with things like more precision ads. There needs to be some sort of regulatory mechanism to protect the mass amounts of data being generated if these cars aim to break into geographic domains like Europe, where people are quite conservative when it comes to data privacy.

How to stop them from becoming potential weapons

Europe has so far been one of the biggest targets of car terrorism incidents with the disturbing thoughts of Nice, Paris, Stockholm and Barcelona attacks still fresh in the mind of many. And it’s no surprise that when people know that these autonomous cars can be easily hacked,” they will inevitably fear these vehicles becoming mainstream.

The current levels of autonomous driving systems have been infamous for not possessing adequate security when it comes to preventing cyber-attacks. The firms developing this technology need to strive towards erecting tamper proof barriers to thwart such attempts if they want people to feel safe around these driverless cars. And until such a development takes place, there will be immense problems in making people and governments buy driverless vehicles.

Predictions vs. Intuition

Driving is a very complicated undertaking. It’s not just about “driving the car,” there are many other complexities involved other than just avoiding obstacles and keeping in the lane. Human drivers can react to situations in a way that current autonomous driving technology has yet to match.

Just imagine that you are driving your car and you suddenly see a person standing. You can tell that this person is about to wander on to the road in a very careless manner and with your intuition at work, you have a lot of options available like slowing down the car to make it easier to stop if the person actually comes on to the road without seeing your car coming in.

This ability to anticipate is still out of the modern driverless technology’s field of operations and this could mean that a Level 5 car is still a dream.

The obstacles don’t end here. There are more that are equally important to address like issues with creating specific maps for such cars. It is a daunting prospect to give an exact prediction on when will we be seeing a car which is purely autonomous and is trustworthy to us. But, that doesn’t imply that this is a fruitless endeavor.

Even at current capabilities, autonomous driving tech can provide us with excellent benefits. The first place where this tech could actually become commercially viable, even with its current limitations, is the trucking sector where it could help reduce inefficiencies like mandatory driver rest intervals to power near to round the clock service and a host of other benefits like saving high amounts of fuel through revolutionary capabilities like platooning. Even the e-commerce sector could make use of it to reduce delivery times.

The bottom line is that the dream lies still some distance away, and the race for driverless cars still continues. However, we humans have an uncanny knack of surprising ourselves by accomplishing things that even we couldn’t think of as possible. And this time, it might not be that different as well.

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