Have an important package for a customer but don’t have the time to drive it over yourself? No worries, send the autonomous car.
Need to pick up the kids from school but you’re in the middle of making a soufflé? No worries, send the autonomous car.
Sounds like the Jetsons, but it’s really not that far off. In 2010, Italy’s VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge sent four driverless vehicles on a little 9,400-mile jaunt from Parma, Italy, to Shanghai, China, without incident. Google has logged over 140,000 test driving hours in its fleet of autonomous vehicles in and around the Bay Area. And the State of Nevada — with lobbying from Google — passed a bill that asks the Department of Motor Vehicles to define regulations that will set the rules for approving these types of vehicles for use on public roads.
Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen are integrating suites of sensors in some of their models today that provide semi-autonomous driving capabilities for drivers. They are being marketed as safety backups. And BMW, Ford, Lexus and Toyota all have driverless parallel parking in some of their models. You’ve probably seen the Ford TV commercials that demonstrate the capability.
Evidence that the autonomous vehicle trend may soon become mainstream comes from an IHS report last month that projects rapid growth in the worldwide demand for “park assist” and “lane-departure warning” sensors. IHS projects these two components will grow to 18 million units by 2015, up from just under 1 million in 2010. These are systems that are preparing the driving public for a future of fully autonomous vehicles.
Proponents of autonomous vehicles point to their purported advantages. Because the systems are more reliable and are never distracted (and never text while driving), they will result in fewer accidents. And traffic flow and roadway capacity will improve because of reduced safety gaps required between vehicles. And, of course, if you’re home making a soufflé you can send the car to pick up the kids.
Already the value of the average car comprises about 40 percent electronics. These systems will boost that figure to what: 70, 80, or 90 percent?
They will include light detection and ranging (LIDAR) sensors first developed by the Department of Defense. Google has outfitted one of its Toyota Priuses with a LIDAR system made by Velodyne that uses 64 lasers spinning at approximately 900 RPM, according to Wired magazine. Then there’s radar and a host of other sensors required to monitor both the external environment and vehicle systems.
What’s required to integrate all this data, and keep the passengers safe at the same time, is a comprehensive control system, which is “easier said than done,” according to IHS. It’s both a technical and cost challenge that may delay the appearance of autonomous vehicles in the local dealer’s showroom. But if the march of technologies past is anything to go on, that day will likely come within the next decade or so.
And when it does appear, the average family sedan will no longer be an engine and a drive train. It will be a mobile datacenter, processing terabytes of data every time you need to send the car to get some milk at the corner store.
It will change the very nature of what we think of as a “car,” which could shepherd in some very interesting opportunities. For instance, when the car is parked overnight in the driveway perhaps its control system can be rented out for data processing. After all, it will be Internet enabled.
That’s the day when the Internet of Things will start to get very interesting.