Golly, Who is driving my car?

By : |January 14, 2015 0
Image courtesy of sattva at freedigitalphotos.net
Self-driving cars seem to have pre-poned their arrival to the intelligent-car party. A test-drive

THE concept does not need any introduction, more so as Google has already filled a lot of media ink and Sci-fi drawing boards since the moment it uttered the word. ‘Self-driving car’ is a leap of imagination that has spread infectiously across the technology village.

But here’s the hairpin turn. It wouldn’t have been so surprising to see a new, fresh geeky outfit pulling another rabbit out of the hat called innovation. If Google or any other new-age company executes the fantasy first, it’s life as usual. But to see old-time mass-market majors of the auto industry catching this virus and towing this queue, now that’s a bit of a ‘let me rub my eyes Dude’ moment.

So far it was Google’s chaise alone that was cruising happily at some NASA research fields but as news rolls in we get to hear of the well-known automaker Nissan veering in the same lane. The car-czar is supposedly set to test autonomous driving technologies with NASA which hopes the five-year partnership can help improve the autonomous vehicle technologies available for its robotic rovers and future space exploration.

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Nissan on its side of the space is probably putting a 2020 milestone to debut cars that can navigate without human intervention and testing of the first of a fleet of self-driving vehicles could begin as early as before the end of 2015.

Carlos Ghosn, president and CEO of Nissan Motor Co, had remarked in an announcement that the partnership will accelerate Nissan’s development of safe, secure and reliable autonomous drive technology that it will progressively introduce to consumers beginning in 2016 up to 2020. A commercially-available self-driving car could be seen on roads by 2018, if all goes as planned.

Interestingly legal turnpikes instead of technological potholes seem to de-accelerate such visionary races in the real world,

That and other privacy debates are perhaps what Google’s own two-seat, all-electric prototype has been trying to sidestep. The car that dispenses with the traditional steering wheel and accelerator and brake pedals in favor of just a start and stop button is way ahead on testing circuits but anything is possible in this race now as many other carmakers are furiously joining the tracks.

Count me in!

At International CES 2015 itself, Mercedes-Benz was seen drawing off curtains from F 015 Luxury in Motion, a prototype self-drive. BMW is attempting the distance in its own way with a self-parking feature as of now. It has shown a self-parking i3 EV, with ability to scout for open slots through a parking garage and that is also equipped with sensors to avoid cars and pedestrians. Ford has taken a technological potshot of sorts saying that it is working on an autonomous driving car for the masses so as to break the affordability issue with Audi/BMW/Mercedes level pricing

Mercedes-Benz is also supposedly testing some robo-cars in a deserted naval base in California while electric-car Prince Elon Musk has shared ambitious goals of making his Tesla electric cars operable without human assistance for as much as 90 per cent of miles driven this year.

Many automakers were seen announcing plans at CES 2015 for autonomous driving vehicles with deadlines parked between 2017 and 2020. But Audi’s ‘piloted driving’ A7 Sportback is currently the talk of the town, specially after it drove itself from California to Vegas, for 885 kms unaided.

The A7, a.k.a Jack, has some DARPA-era big sensors bolted on the top and sides, with various production-ready sensors as well as sensors integrated into production vehicles today that accurately detect the vehicles surroundings. It has been reviewed as not so obtrusive and Audi boasts that the multiplicity of short- and long-range radars and lasers provides redundancy beyond the almost-hands-off driving requirements.

Audi had given nail-biting demos of piloted driving at the DTM season finale, where the Audi RS 7 piloted driving concept completed a lap on the Grand Prix track in Hockenheim. This, by the way, was done at racing speed, and without a driver.

Audi does not mince words or lofty ambitions here when it reasons that if auto-pilots can fit well several feet above in the sky in a plane then why should cars be left out. It feels that it is already possible to connect the complex technologies of piloted driving so efficiently and intelligently that they take up hardly any space in the car, add hardly any extra weight and use hardly any extra energy. Audi interestingly has claimed that it will never build robot cars, but instead will always put the driver in the focus of its decisions.

Blurred road-view

This genre of driving ironically aspires to dispute the arguments around safety etc by offering greater safeguards in road traffic and ironing out infrastructural traffic problems. If synchronizing driver data and establishing a continuous connection in piloted cars with each other is made feasible than traffic jams can be avoided and at the same time, congestion and environmental issues can be blown out.

The advantages are as umpteen as contentions around overall big picture of safety and nightmarish side-effects of unmanned driving that regulators and activists have been rightly tossing around.

Not so surprising then is to see how legislative and regulatory issues present the highest barriers to introduction as per a report from Navigant Research. The biggest practical hurdles before rollout to the public are not technological but relate to liability, regulation, and legislation, according to the report. If no government is willing to take the steps required to make autonomous vehicles legal on public roads, it could be a big obstacle for the emergence of widespread autonomous driving and the potential benefits it offers, a report had highlighted well.

The Small Unmanned Arial Systems (sUAS) market will nevertheless surpass $8.4 billion by 2018 if ABI Research is sensing it right. Its report points that by 2019 the Commercial sector will dominate the overall sUAS market and revenues could exceed $5.1 billion showing a rate of 51 per cent CAGR between 2014 and 2019. This is deliciously 2.3 times greater than the Military/Civil market segment.

Application services—industry specific applications, as well as data, operator and modeling services—and not platforms and other hardware technologies, are slated to be the key driver for the growth of the Commercial sector. Ongoing research advancements, technological developments, and rapidly dropping prices for increasingly capable enabling technologies, have combined to remove barriers to innovation and commercialization, and spur the development of new sUAS and increase the ways they can be applied, ABI Research dissected.

Will they – Won’t they?

Autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles have been a goal of automotive engineers for many years and even after significant challenges remain; the competition among automakers to bring autonomous features to market is strong. In the long term, the technology has the potential to institute major changes in personal mobility, particularly in large cities and some latest estimates allude to worldwide sales of vehicles with autonomous capability growing from zero in 2014 to 94.7 million in 2035.

Navigant Research’s analysts had also picked out how cost reductions brought about by increasing volumes and technological advances are making the installation of the multiple sensors necessary for such capability feasible. The progress on the road of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles is a result of combinations of advanced driver assistance features and simple automated driving functions such as keeping in lane while adjusting speed to the vehicle in front currently being introduced.

Amidst all the new set of wheels joining the race for the first proper self-driven car and the set of spokes that safety-guards would keep fiddling with, Navigant Research sees the scenario as an upbeat one with more comprehensive self-driving features to be brought to market by 2020, thanks to advances in computing power and software development. It forecasts that 94.7 million autonomous-capable vehicles will be sold annually around the world by 2035.

Will your car be one of those million fairy-tale wagons?

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