Autonomous cars are the center of attention for car enthusiasts around the world. Autonomous cars are also called driverless vehicles because it is able to perform all the necessary operation by themselves and doesn’t require any human intervention. These cars are implanted with technology that can detect nearby objects and their distance, sense the surrounding environment, and identify appropriate navigation paths while maintaining road transportation rules very strictly. Self-driving technology can be considered a breakthrough in science because with this technology we can reduce the number of road accidents. One study found that 94 percent of accidents were caused by carelessness and poor judgment on the part of the driver. So, this technology will go a long way in reducing driver errors.
History of Autonomous Vehicles
Both major car manufacturers and the Automotive Research Centers have been working on car automation systems for a long time. Because of their combined efforts, the way we view and use transportation systems is likely to change dramatically. But how did we get into this amazing innovation that at one time seemed so impossible?
The idea and design of the first automated car was generated centuries before the first car was even made. In 1500, Leonardo Da Vinci created a cart that could move back and forth without needing to be pushed or pulled. It had springs that provided the power and steering which was set in advance so that the cart could move ahead on a predetermined path.
The first modern step toward automated cars began in 1925. That year, inventor Francis Houdiana, gave a demonstration of a radio-controlled car that could run freely on the streets of Manhattan without the requirement of any drivers. It could be turned on and off, shift gears, sound the horn, and move externally with the help of a radio. But the project couldn’t go far because the operator lost control twice and crashed into another vehicle. Although the project failed, it encouraged people to think more about automated cars.
At the 1939’s World’s Fair, General Motors brought out the first self-driving car model. The car’s design showed that it could be guided by a radio-controlled electromagnetic field which controlled the magnetized metal spikes embedded in the roadway. The model turned into reality in 1958. It contained a sensor that could detect surrounding objects and the path to some extent via electrical flow. The sensor could detect the current flow through a wire embedded on the road and send signals to the steering wheel to move left or right.
The next few years from then were filled with hype for space exploration. During that period, researchers were thinking about how to create vehicles that can roam by itself on the moon’s surface. In 1961, James Adams created a robotic car named the “Stanford Cart” with a camera implanted in it that could follow designated lines on the ground. Using a camera to create an autonomous vehicle is considered a vital event on this journey.
Japanese scientists came up with an improvised idea in 1977, they implanted a camera that could take images of the road and process that data to move on the road. This technology led us to the world’s first auto-driven passenger vehicle which could run at a max speed of 20 miles per hour.
At the end of the last century, Carnegie Mellon University integrated the neural networking method with camera implanted self-driving technology that evolved the image processing and steering control systems. They made a car, called the NavLab 5, and took it to the road for testing. Although the speed and braking were controlled by Carnegie Mellon researchers, the car autonomously traveled 2,797 miles from Pittsburgh to San Diego.
In the early 2000s, the US Department of Research Arm (DARPA) sponsored further research in automotive cars. As a result, four fully self-driving cars were able to successfully cross the 60-mile long test drive urban route by 2007. In mid-2010, major car manufacturers such as Ford, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and the renowned ride-sharing company Uber, became interested in working with self-driving technology. However, in 2020, Uber announced the closure of its autonomous car operations due to safety, lawsuits, and financial losses.
Current State of Autonomous Car Industry
Autonomous car manufacturing is in full swing in this century. Autonomous or self-driving cars may mean something different to different people, so the Society of Automotive Engineers has created a classification that helps us to understand the states of car autonomy. Understanding the present situation requires knowledge of these classifications.
From level 0 to level 5 – There are six levels that show what autonomous and semi-autonomous cars are capable of. These are:
- Level 0 – No automation. A driver will be completely in charge of operating the movement of the vehicle.
- Level 1 – Driver assistance. The lowest level of assistance is where the driver will get steering or braking and acceleration assistance. Adaptive cruise control is an example of level 1.
- Level 2 – Partial driving automation. Vehicles of this level have advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) that can take over steering, acceleration, and braking in specific scenarios.
From this point onwards, the cars will not require any human drivers
- Level 3 – Conditional driving automation. It uses artificial intelligence and various driver assistance system to make decisions and change driving situations. People inside the vehicle will not be required to supervise in such situations.
- Level 4 – High driving automation. This level of automation doesn’t require any human interaction in the vehicle’s operation. As it doesn’t require any human driver, it may not have a steering wheel and paddles. Also, it will be programmed to stop itself in a state of system failure. This technology is mainly for public transport and driverless taxis, which will be strictly instructed to go from point A to point B.
- Level 5 – Full driving automation. This is the highest level of automation. Once you set the destination, the car will be able to drive itself regardless of weather and traffic conditions. It will be a comfortable and efficient way to travel without requiring a driver.
Currently, the majority of cars have level 1 automation, which means these have basic cruise control or simple lane-maintaining assistance. Some big players like Tesla, GM, and Ford has reached the level 2 automation system and are already shipping their products to the market. It’s notable to mention that Tesla was the first company to come up with a fully self-driving package, which includes autonomous hands-free control both on highways and on freeways. However, the brand was criticized a lot because the car lacks accuracy in detecting objects and following proper navigation.
Meanwhile, brands like Honda and Mercedes have pushed their limit to level 3 and they are about to enter the market soon.
Future of Autonomous Technology
Any technology enthusiast will be fascinated about the future of automobiles and how this technology will grow more reliable and faster. Government organizations are very positive about self-driving cars, but they also have to deal with a lot of problems. Although this technology will add more advantages like reliability and controlled speed, reduce the need for vehicle insurance, the government’s budget for traffic maintenance, and save time and pollution during commutes, it will also require rebuilding the legal framework for autonomous cars.
However, since the autonomous car controlling system has already planted the seed of interest and needs in our civilization, there is a lot of research and experiments going on this topic. To this date, there are a lot of self-driving vehicles that can be seen on the road that are being supervised by a human in a controlled environment. By 2025, it’s expected to have 8 million (approx.) automated cars on the road.
The primary goal for achieving autonomy is to make a system that can operate cars safely and effectively even in complex and unpredictable situations. Under the direct supervision of Necmiye Ozay, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Michigan, a research team at the Mcity Test Facility is expecting to crack this puzzle in 2025. They have a mini town of 16 acres where they have traffic signals, road signs, walkways, railway tracks, etc., so it’s a perfect place to test driverless technology.
A startup founded by Alibaba, AutoX is testing RoboTaxi in Shanghai, China, and they are expected to open this facility for commercial purposes by the end of 2023.
The biggest tech giant, Apple, is trying to fill up the space where the world can see driverless technology deployed in a high-risk environment. The reason behind this, driverless technology is already being used in the industrial sector like mines, warehouses, and ports. So, if vehicles that carry heavy and sensitive goods can use this technology, there will be less chance for unexpected events.
Finally, experts believe that by 2031, the world will have fully self-driven autonomous cars with human-level intelligence. So, safety and reliability will not be an issue at all. Moreover, scientists are trying to use electric cars for self-driving technology because in the future electricity will be the primary source of power for cars. So, there will be no issue with compatibility in the future. Electric charging stations are already being set up in parks, side streets, and service stations, so electric autonomous vehicles will eventually make their way into the next generation.
Fully autonomous vehicles are the future because this technology has the potential to enhance safety by eliminating human limitations like aging, disease, stress, fatigue, inexperience, etc. Though there are social concerns about the deployment of this technology like cost maintenance, rise in fuel or charge consumption, increment of travel demand, legal and ethical issues, loss of jobs for existing drivers, unmonitored access to the system, and many more but experts are on their way to resolve such issues. On the positive side, these autonomous self-driving cars will help to reduce pollution and save the environment via electric drive. There will be less traffic congestion, accidents, CO2 emissions, faster and safer travel, and the list goes on and on. If you consider these facts, autonomous vehicles are the future for daily transportation and soon we’ll have them commercially available for purchase.