Self-Driving Vehicles Could Change the Way We Think of Cars

Every major auto manufacturer and top-tier supplier is working on self-driving autos and they may be here sooner than you think. As technology inside and between cars becomes increasingly more sophisticated, the potential for driverless automobiles raises new questions about the road ahead.

 "Conservatively, by the year 2025 cars will be able to drive themselves under all conditions," estimates Richard Wallace, director of transportation systems analysis for the non-profit Center for Automotive Research, based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The consumer automotive market already is benefiting from advances such as parking assist, lane keeping systems, forward crash avoidance radar, and adaptive cruise control on higher-end car models. Later this year, Mercedes and Audi 2014 model-year cars will have traffic jam assist -- a new technology that will control steering, acceleration, and braking to keep pace with other drivers in low-speed situations like stop-and-go traffic -- according to Wallace.

The electronic content and components of today's modern vehicle are 35 to 40 percent of a vehicle's value and more advanced than many of us realize. A typical luxury car has more than 100 million lines of computer code.

When it comes to safety, artificial intelligence is going to be superior to manual driving over time. "There is no doubt that as the technology matures, it will be more capable than we are. So, as for crashes, injuries, and fatalities, we will be better off," stated Wallace.

The technologies to be utilized will most likely be a convergence of camera systems (because they're cheap), radar (also inexpensive), and radio waves for communication from vehicle to vehicle.

Lidar and laser systems are a bit more expensive and use light to do what radar does in detecting objects. But if prices eventually come down, it too could be employed.

There will be some accidents as drivers navigate the transition from manual to automated drive. But the tradeoff may be, in Wallace's view, "instead of 34,000 fatalities per year, we may get it down to 1,000 per year."

During a recent Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on the policy implications of self-driving vehicles, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) head David Strickland spoke about the start of a new office within the agency to explore and research vehicle-electronic safety. "We don't want to be behind the eight ball," he said.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) expressed his concerns at the hearing about the potential connections cars have to each other and the internet, asking, "....are they at risk of catastrophic cyber-attacks?"

"[Safety] technologies in the marketplace today already are providing important benefits as they set the foundation for tomorrow," Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers President Mitch Bainwol told the panel.

Bainwol added that technology was not the biggest hurdle, insisting that the industry needs to overcome the challenges of

  1. Consumer acceptance;
  2. Product liability;
  3. Connectivity; and
  4. Fleet mix concerns.

"How do you instill brand character into a vehicle that drives itself?" asked Jason Stein, editor and publisher of Automotive News.

"How do you create an emotional link?" Stein added, referencing the relationship between a driver and an autonomous vehicle.

The emotional connection between drivers and their cars, branding, safety, and cyber security are challenges to be reconciled if the market is to embrace autonomous driving.

Yet even seniors, who have valued their independence as drivers for a lifetime, may embrace the idea of a driverless vehicle pulling up to their home to take them to a destination of choice.

What will the auto industry look like years from now when cars are fully automated? New business models for the industry are certain to emerge.

Today's car advertising is all about the driving experience: the horsepower and the cornering, etc. But none of that is going to matter if the car is driving you.

"Perhaps we may not even own a car, but instead we subscribe to a mobility service... like ZipCar on steroids and pay as you go," Wallace said. Upon waking in the morning, we could simply request a "transport device" to be at our house in 30 minutes to take us to work. Then it's gone until you request a return trip at the end of the day.

Consumers might still own cars but be sold on other features like comfort, more color choices, and perhaps a faster internet. Whatever evolves, it is going to be different than the experience that is pitched today.

Wallace envisions a time when being transported in a car gets closer to mass transit. There may still be this individualized compartment, a vehicle that can contain one person or an entire group, but after the first half mile or so the technology will allow cars to join a "platoon" on the interstate for the vast majority of a trip. Cars would be interlocked electronically with the fuel efficiency and safety of a train.

This model could lead to an infrastructure change. Instead of HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes, we might have SDV (self-driving vehicle) lanes. Eventually, two out of three lanes could become SDV paths with cars right behind each other automatically driving at 100 mph.

Technology and automotive companies are leading the way toward self-driving cars. Drivers will be adapting stage by stage until one day, they finally might find themselves safely asleep at the wheel.


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