Autonomous Driving is Here to Stay

Get the Scoop on the Future of Autonomous Technology

Edi­to­r­i­al com­ment: Autonomous vehi­cles – or so-called dri­ver­less cars – have been in the news a lot late­ly. Some of it good and some bad. A decade ago most of us looked at autonomous dri­ving as some­thing off the wall, unsafe, some­thing to keep away from teens and, at best, com­plete­ly unaf­ford­able.

Today, we’re begin­ning to see autonomous dri­ving in a total­ly dif­fer­ent light.

What began last decade with the U.S. Depart­ment of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) pio­neer­ing robo-car races in the desert has evolved into Google’s self-dri­ving cars safe­ly motor­ing (with super­vi­sion) some 300,000 mi (480,000 km) on city streets and free­ways, not to men­tion the intro­duc­tion of new autonomous research vehi­cles from Audi and Lexus at the last Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Association’s Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Show.

Can Autonomous Vehi­cles Make us Safer?

“Pret­ty much every­body thinks that there will be autonomous vehi­cles some day,” said Toyota’s Cor­po­rate Man­ag­er for North Amer­i­can Busi­ness Strat­e­gy Jim Pisz. “But first there has to be a will­ing­ness by soci­ety to accept it, and we’re not there yet.”

When you ask Pisz about the giant Japan­ese auto maker’s efforts to devel­op autonomous, self-dri­ving cars, he turns the dis­cus­sion to safe­ty, point­ing out the company’s Advanced Active Safe­ty Research Vehi­cle (AASRV). “Our pur­pose in this is all about devel­op­ing safer sys­tems,” he said.

How­ev­er, speak­ers on the “Dri­ver Dis­trac­tion Reg­u­la­tion and Autonomous Dri­ving” pan­el told SAE 2013 World Con­gress atten­dees that there are still many hur­dles to be over­come before autonomous vehi­cles rule the roads. Tech­nol­o­gy and reg­u­la­tions are impor­tant, but fig­ur­ing out how to com­bine human inter­ac­tions and auto­mat­ed con­trol are also crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant.

“A key word is bal­ance. You have to clear­ly set the roles and respon­si­bil­i­ties between the dri­ver and the vehi­cle,” said Kazuo­ki Mat­sug­atani, Direc­tor of Divi­sion 3 Cor­po­rate R&D at Den­so Corp. “A dri­ver may ful­ly rely on the sys­tems and not pay atten­tion to dri­ving. You need to find bal­ance between over-reliance and dis­trac­tion.”

What are the Impli­ca­tions for Autonomous Tech­nol­o­gy?

With secu­ri­ty, reli­a­bil­i­ty, and legal issues yet to be resolved, the first self-dri­ving vehi­cles will per­form only spe­cif­ic tasks. Take, for instance, Audi’s self-park­ing sys­tem in Las Vegas applied by mod­i­fy­ing the park­ing garage of the Man­darin Ori­en­tal hotel.

All major car­mak­ers are devel­op­ing self-dri­ving tech­nolo­gies. The man respon­si­ble for the Gen­er­al Motors effort, research pro­gram man­ag­er Jere­my Salinger, says the com­pa­ny is already exper­i­ment­ing with vehi­cles capa­ble of steer­ing them­selves in high­way traf­fic. But he stress­es that it will be impor­tant not to rush the imple­men­ta­tion of such tech­nol­o­gy, and to make sure the inter­face is right.

The Nation­al High­way Traf­fic Safe­ty Admin­is­tra­tion is already prepar­ing for the inevitable. It has cre­at­ed a $2 mil­lion research project focused on autonomous dri­ving. This effort will explore dri­ver-vehi­cle inter­ac­tion issues (when and how autonomous dri­ving tech­nol­o­gy takes over), secu­ri­ty and reli­a­bil­i­ty, and ways of mea­sur­ing the per­for­mance of autonomous sys­tems.

Today, autonomous dri­ving is noth­ing to laugh at or ignore. We are in the begin­ning stages of a tech­nol­o­gy that could pro­vide greater safe­ty and greater dan­ger for motorists on the road. Which way it will go depends large­ly on the type of research, the goal of such research and the abil­i­ty to adapt our think­ing to the think­ing of machines.

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