Over the last 25-30 years, the motor industry has always had at least one technological ‘race’ to keep people interested. The mass-production of hybrid and electric cars were the first two, and these days it’s a race to release the first fully-autonomous, or self-driving, car to the public. That’s right, the idea of cars driving themselves is no longer a concept of sci-fi fantasy! Some current cars do have aspects of autonomy built into them already, with Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) and parking assistance technology just two examples. But fully-autonomous vehicles, the ones which don’t need human intervention, remain in testing. Nevertheless, this testing is currently taking place on public roads, so it’s only a matter of time before these cars become available to everyday road users and spark a rev-olution. Here’s what you need to know…
How much “autonomy” is possible?
Currently, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE International) work with a series of levels which determine how autonomous a vehicle is. Cars at Level 0 have no aspects of control by vehicle; ACC and parking assist are examples of Level 1; at Level 2 the car can take full control as long as a driver is present; the present driver can safely turn their attention away from driving at Level 3; the driver can be asleep at Level 4, and at Level 5 the driver is completely optional. Levels 3 & 4 are expected to be the most common when they initially enter mass production.
How Does it Work?
There’s a risk of going overboard with the techno jargon here, so we’ll leave that to the engineers and try to keep this relatively simple! Autonomous vehicles use radars, laser lights, GPS and odometry (the use of data from motion sensors) to identify and follow navigation paths. The car’s control systems interpret the data and react in real-time, with the various sensors in use able to detect any obstacle. Industry bigwigs say that autonomous cars will even “think like humans”!
Are There Any Negatives?
The plus points of autonomous cars generally revolve around reducing both traffic and emissions, plus generally making travel a bit simpler. However, there have been some potential issues highlighted, with hacking being the most significant. After all, autonomous cars will essentially be huge computers. Software reliability and general liability have also been identified and will dominate many peoples’ reservations. There’s also a chance it could make the car chase scenes in James Bond films a little dull!
Most of the world’s major car manufacturers are developing autonomous cars at the moment. However, this is technology which will transcend a myriad of industries. As such, Intel, Google and Uber are very much at the forefront, though the latter have hit some legal issues which might slow them down. Lots of European countries including the UK, Belgium, France, Netherlands, Spain and Germany have given their blessing for autonomous cars, so they could be here rather soon.
Who’s Going to Enter Mass Production First?
The answer to this question is a little less clear than the previous ones, but Audi are pretty confident they’ll be one of the first in line. In fact, they claim that they’ll have road-legal cars capable of Level 3 automation by the end of 2017 and Level 4 vehicles on the road in 2020. They’re even saying that a future A8, which they expect to release in 2020, will be the first fully-autonomous car to go on sale and it’ll have Artificial Intelligence so advanced that it’ll be able to learn and predict its owners’ behaviour!
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