The Road to Driverless Cars: An Overview of Autonomous Vehicles
Autonomous Vehicles (or AV’s) are an inherent piece of today’s modern culture, consuming the spotlight across mainstream media, social platforms, seminars, financial news and investment forecasts. They’re also commonly spotted cruising the streets of San Francisco, Phoenix, Austin, and Atlanta. So, are these highly hyped curiosities of mobile technology legitimate? Or, are they simply a fleeting distraction?
There’s no skirting around the truth: they are definitely legitimate. Autonomous vehicles are not only here to stay, but innovation and technological advancements are rapidly fueling the development of these ever-evolving automobiles.
We’ve crafted a five-part series to further explore the AV realm, sharing our expertise and insight on a myriad of topics, including the history of autonomous vehicles, current market trends, primary use cases and business models pertaining to AV’s, the leading pioneers in the industry, the latest advancing technologies, inherent limitations to be considered, and what the future may hold.
Ready to dive in? Sit back, relax, and enjoy Part One of our autonomous ride…
Ground Zero – The Basics of AVs
To start with the fundamentals, let’s quickly discuss the definition of an autonomous vehicle. An autonomous vehicle is an automobile with the ability to drive to a predetermined destination without human involvement or intervention using a combination of sensors, data processing, and vehicle control technology.
While this is a bold, all-encompassing statement, in reality, autonomous vehicles are broken down into “Levels” based on their individual capabilities. The Levels, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), are the latest global standard for vehicle automation. They are as follows:
1 | Driver Support Features
A human is driving whenever these features are engaged, meaning the driver is constantly supervising braking, steering, and acceleration for optimal safety.
- Level 0: Features are limited to providing warnings or momentary assistance when needed. Examples include blind-spot warning, automatic emergency braking, and lane departure warning.
- Level 1: Features provide either steering or braking/acceleration to support the driver. Examples include lane-centering or adaptive cruise control – both cannot be engaged simultaneously.
- Level 2: Features provide both steering and braking/acceleration to support the driver. At this level, the vehicle can furnish the driver with both adaptive cruise control and lane-centering support simultaneously.
2 | Automated Driving Features
A human is not driving whenever these features are engaged; the vehicle is responsible for managing the driving.
- Level 3: Vehicle can fully control itself under limited conditions and only when all conditions are met. Automated features may still require a human driver to take over when prompted. An example feature is a traffic jam chauffeur.
- Level 4: Vehicle can fully control itself under limited conditions and only when all conditions are met. Automated features do not require human intervention; optional for driver controls to be installed. Examples include location- and weather-restricted local driverless taxis and the pedals/steering wheel may or may not be installed.
- Level 5: Vehicle can fully control itself under ALL conditions. Automated features do not require human intervention supporting the driver; optional for driver controls to be installed. Level five has the same driving features as level four, except it can operate under any and all conditions.
How Did We Get Here? A Historical Look at AVs
Surprisingly, the autonomous journey began in the 1920’s with vehicles in New York City. Though at the time these were nothing more than full size radio-controlled passenger vehicles followed by another vehicle with a human controlling the steering, braking and acceleration. These early efforts evolved quickly through the 1930’s – 1960’s as vehicles were guided with various technologies without a secondary control vehicle. In the 1939 World’s Fair, Norman Bel Geddes embedded wires for vehicles to follow and eventually wires were replaced with electromagnets to control vehicles. While the concept was clear, they were still essentially glorified street cars of their day following a predetermined route.
The 1980s ushered in the next wave of developments, setting the foundation for where we are today thanks to a visionary German Professor known as Ernst Dickmanns. Professor Dickmanns was arguably the first to utilize vision systems (cameras) and sensors to successfully achieve vehicle autonomy – an astonishing accomplishment nearly 35 years ago at the dawn of the first PC. By the end of the 1980s, his test vehicle ‘VaMoRs,’ a large Mercedes van, was able to achieve what we’d classify today as Level 2 Vehicle Automation – driving up to 60 mph with steering, braking, and acceleration operating autonomously and a driver ready to assume control if needed.
Within the same decade, a more well-known project from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was the first identified usage of early Light Detection and Radar (LiDaR, Lidar) systems. This was a critical discovery, as the use of Lidar for guidance has become the foundation for the core systems of some of the most advanced AV’s being tested today.
A Look Ahead
Between the numerous projects and technological advancements made since the 1990s, autonomous vehicles have made tremendous progression. A significant number of today’s consumer vehicles contain Level 2 Autonomy. Several higher-end vehicles are sporting add-on packages with level 3 features, while testing and evaluation on level 4 vehicles are taking place. Can you imagine in another few years what types of automobiles we’ll see in the marketplace?