Sunday, October 20, 2019
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Driverless cars inch their way closer to reality

Cars that drive themselves? A few years ago, this would have been science fiction. Not so far-fetched now.

Aircrafts have had a autopilot for a long time now. In fact, a lot of the technology such as cameras, sensors, radars and imaging systems required to build truly autonomous vehicles are already available.

Multiple experimental vehicles are being tested for varying levels of operational autonomy. Google’s technology has driven a Toyota Prius over 300,000 kilometres around the US without a single technology caused accident. General Motors, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW and Volvo are all testing their own full or partial autonomous systems.

Volvo has launched the ‘autonomous valet parking cars’ in Europe. Nissan recently committed to launch an ‘Autonomous Drive’ system by 2020. The transition is inevitable. We do expect it to happen in a building block form like advanced driver assistance systems, park assist systems, or integrated vehicle health monitoring and autonomous systems

Moving from Point A to Point B involves planning and decision-making about mode of transport, routes, times, safety, comfort, weather, luxury and convenience. However, it is a fact that a significant percentage of road accidents stem from human errors. Making vehicles autonomous globally could be around $300-400 billion of economic impact if you take into account loss of human life, their economic impact to the society and the allied claims.

There is a lot to be gained by removing humans from driving. There is no reason that technology cannot make roads driver-free as seen in cases of trains/locomotives and aircrafts in autopilot mode.

The question is can we make it affordable, safer and easy to use and bound by regulations which itself is evolving? Nevertheless, the sheer number of people around the globe who will be affected by autonomous vehicles is staggering.

Apart from the primary technology required to actually build a road-safe autonomous vehicle, we can safely foresee huge regulatory and infrastructure challenges. Autonomous vehicles make more sense only if the infrastructure also enables it. Just like electric vehicles required an ecosystem of charging points that could quickly charge a vehicle without bringing down the grid, new infrastructure requirements such as intelligent traffic lights, smart lanes with sensors and automated parking infrastructure will accelerate the adoption of autonomous vehicles.

Countries conform to their own traffic rules and implement their own safety regulation. Any autonomous vehicle system must be ready to be tested and certified on any safety regulation around the globe. This is a massive challenge. Companies must be ready to programme and tailor their intelligent drive systems for different geographies which suit different cultures.

Also, such vehicles bring in a certain amount of threat to personal privacy. Autonomous vehicles are built with advanced sensing and tracking capabilities and are constantly monitored. While this feature is intended to complement vehicle performance, we cannot overlook the fact that this may create new security concerns and lend itself to commercial misuse.

Finally, there is the challenge of customer adoption. Will consumers adopt something that will change a fundamental way of life? Can someone give up driving as a passion? This final hurdle could well be the biggest one, but at the same time, everyone can enjoy the pleasure of being seated in the driver’s seat calmly without getting ruffled by the chaos of traffic.

Fuel efficiency has always been a USP for the automotive industry. Autonomous vehicles can provide better fuel efficiency because they are equipped with intelligent technologies that enable this.

Safety is one segment where autonomous vehicle can make their biggest impact. By eliminating human intervention altogether, autonomous cars with the proper intelligent infrastructure can reduce road accidents significantly.

Additionally, autonomous vehicles are believed to have the potential to shorten travel time and improve traffic flow. They can free up valuable driving time and enable car owners to complete other tasks while on the move or merely enjoy the ride.

How will the industry change? Technologically speaking, would a driverless car look like the cars of today? For instance, in a completely driverless car, do we need a steering wheel? Companies also need to think about how other innovations like fuel cells and nanotechnology can complement such autonomous vehicle even while reducing the cost.

Whatever the changes the industry can expect, we can safely assume that the role of ‘intelligence’ within such cars will be significantly greater than what they are today. Automotive companies must partner with companies that can help develop, test and implement this intelligence into the vehicles. Or could this create a new industry by itself?

The automotive industry has already been adapting to this change. It started with the inclusion and integration of electronics and Artificial Intelligence into cars.

Next-generation cars include electronics in everything from braking systems, engine system, power train, body controls to infotainment, enabled with advanced driver assist systems integrating with multiple types of sensor inputs, radar and image fusion and analytics. System architecture, aystem integration and system testing would be more challenging than ever before.

For autonomous vehicles to become a reality, these requirements will only increase. What is needed is a more agile automotive ecosystem that must create and adopt technology faster than before.

— The writer is the head for integrated engineering solutions at Tech Mahindra.