What You Need to Know About Driverless Vehicles
Do you remember KITT? The artificially intelligent, self-aware car from Knight Rider. It was a 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am and a figment of the imagination. Now in real life, cars are become increasingly more and more intelligent.
The inception of self-driving, autonomous cars is on the horizon, with companies such as Tesla, Audi, Nissan and Google spending significant sums to get ahead of the game. So here is our low-down on driverless cars…
Firstly, the term ‘driverless’ car is a little misleading because it will be many years before it is either possible or legal. Currently autonomous cars feature a steering wheel, gearbox and pedals like a regular car and they must have a manual override so that the engineer can take control if necessary. Although the long-term plan is that eventually this will be phased out to create fully autonomous vehicles. These specially built vehicles are loaded with cameras and sensors and then the computer and hardware to decipher the data.
The UK is one country that is leading the way for autonomous cars with the government investing in trialling and developing driverless tech in conjunction with car makers. The Driven Group is a consortium of British tech companies that is pioneering research in the industry. Driverless cars are currently being tested in small urban areas and city centres in the UK but Driven Group have announced plans to test a fleet of autonomous vehicles on motorways by 2019.
The UK government has been keen to make the country an easy place for manufacturers to test vehicles compared to the US where testing requires approval from the state. Currently the proposed Modern Transport Bill will look at reform including amendments to the Highway Code and changes to insurance.
Potential Benefits of Autonomous Vehicles
- Faster Reaction Times – A human driver is currently the slowest part of any vehicle
- Smarter Decisions – In an emergency a computer can quickly analyse the best response to a situation
- Better Drivers – Machines don’t get tired, distracted, drunk or have road-rage
- Lower Fuel Consumption – Optimisation of speeds and braking to reduce fuel use.
- Faster Speeds – Autonomous cars will be able to travel at much faster speeds than a human driver
- Reduced Traffic Congestion – A network of driverless cars could optimise traffic flow, reduce collisions and the associated cost of injury and insurance.
- Increased mobility for disabled, elderly and young passengers
Vehicles have already benefited from the technological advances achieved as a result of investment into driverless technology which options such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure warnings and head-on collision avoidance systems.
Levels of driving automation
In SAE’s autonomy level definitions, “driving mode” means “a type of driving scenario with characteristic dynamic driving task requirements (e.g., expressway merging, high speed cruising, low speed traffic jam, closed-campus operations, etc.)
- Level 0: Automated system issues warnings and may momentarily intervene but has no sustained vehicle control.
- Level 1 (“hands on”): The driver and the automated system share control of the vehicle. Examples are Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), where the driver controls steering and the automated system controls speed; and Parking Assistance, where steering is automated while speed is manual. The driver must be ready to retake full control at any time. Lane Keeping Assistance (LKA) Type II is a further example of level 1 self driving.
- Level 2 (“hands off”): The automated system takes full control of the vehicle (accelerating, braking, and steering). The driver must monitor the driving and be prepared to intervene immediately at any time if the automated system fails to respond properly. The shorthand “hands off” is not meant to be taken literally. In fact, contact between hand and wheel is often mandatory during SAE 2 driving, to confirm that the driver is ready to intervene.
- Level 3 (“eyes off”): The driver can safely turn their attention away from the driving tasks, e.g. the driver can text or watch a movie. The vehicle will handle situations that call for an immediate response, like emergency braking. The driver must still be prepared to intervene within some limited time, specified by the manufacturer, when called upon by the vehicle to do so. The 2018 Audi A8 Luxury Sedan was the first commercial car to claim to be capable of level 3 self driving. The car has a so-called Traffic Jam Pilot. When activated by the human driver, the car takes full control of all aspects of driving in slow-moving traffic at up to 60 kilometers per hour. The function works only on highways with a physical barrier separating one stream of traffic from oncoming traffic.
- Level 4 (“mind off”): As level 3, but no driver attention is ever required for safety, i.e. the driver may safely go to sleep or leave the driver’s seat. Self driving is supported only in limited spatial areas (geofenced) or under special circumstances, like traffic jams. Outside of these areas or circumstances, the vehicle must be able to safely abort the trip, i.e. park the car, if the driver does not retake control.
- Level 5 (“steering wheel optional”): No human intervention is required. An example would be a robotic taxi.
Check out the Mercedes-Benz F015 self-driving car in the video from TechRadar
Future of Driverless Trucks
The technology isn’t just limited to cars but there is also significant investment from truck manufacturers in similar technology.
The obstacles facing self-driving trucks are far higher than for cars. Technology will have to match the skills of a professional trucker in the face of road hazards, poor surface conditions and of course other unpredictable road users. A big question is – what will it do for jobs in the industry? It potentially solves a problem of the chronic shortage of truck drivers and creates new jobs monitoring and remote driving of vehicles. The nature of the job might be radically changed with this new technology, but it is premature to think that self-driving trucks will replace the professional trucker.
Volvo has a fully automated truck operating in Kristineberg mine in Sweden. Plus, it recently demonstrated a fully driverless truck in China that can drive between delivery hubs without the need for a human operator.
Currently technology called ‘platooning’ is being developed. This involves trucks from a single company working together, communicating between trucks to allow them to drive closer together and synchronise braking. There are economic and environmental advantages to the technology as the system reduces air-resistance and improving fuel consumption rates.
This video from Volvo group demonstrates their developments in truck platooning.
It’s probably a good idea to forget owning a fully self-driving vehicle as the cost will be prohibitive. They are more likely to be seen in taxi-like fleets in city centres covering short distances with a high level of programming specific to their location.
Will we ever learn to trust driverless cars?
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