Autonomous vehicles: How did we get here, where are we going?

23 Mar 2017

Autonomous vehicle. Image: VanderWolf Images/Shutterstock

Autonomous vehicles are heading our way, with a general attitude of inevitability apparent throughout the automotive industry.

Autonomous vehicles

The race for a driverless future is best exemplified by the diverse range of companies currently investigating their own solutions to the transport problem.

Nissan, BMW and Audi represent some of the more active, traditional automotive companies pumping huge resources into this field. They have been joined by Airbus, adding an aeronautical dimension with optimistic plans for ‘air taxis’, and Tesla, pioneering an electric future.

Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce behemoth, has been a creative force in the past two years, acquiring stakes in some companies many expect to be powering the future of transport.

Then there are the tech giants Apple and Google, the most vocal proponents of autonomous vehicles (AVs) and the duo most likely to be willing to pour endless amounts of money into innovations facing significantly longer lead-in times than traditionally encouraged in transport.

But really, where are we with regard to autonomous transport? And where will we be by the end of the decade?

On trial

For the truth about that, the Autobahn likely holds the first clue.

As far back as October 2015, Daimler initiated a successful trial of autonomous trucks, negotiating 14km of motorways around Stuttgart. With the easily mapped roads and continuous traffic, the ingredients were perfect for such trials.

In fact, it has been a similar set-up for studies ever since. For example, there are early-stage plans for Dublin to trial a similar project at the Port Tunnel area, again full of perfect, contained, continuous elements.

However, Ireland is hardly up to speed in this industry, with a Dublin City Council source telling that not one government policy exists in this sphere.

“It’s pretty embarrassing,” said the source.

Keeping away from the blue riband autonomous cars we hear so much about, trucks are but one example of innovation. And in the years since the Daimler trial, other modes of transport have edged closer to market.

In January, a trial for a fully autonomous shuttle bus service in Nevada was unveiled, with Navya, the company making the buses, and Keolis, a fleet logistics provider, behind the move.

The cost to run the shuttles is estimated at $10,000 per month but, if it is structured in a way similar to New York City’s LinkNYC internet booths, then advertising could well finance the whole thing.

Up and away

But if buses are too 20th century, then perhaps air taxis are the way of the future. That’s according to Airbus CEO Tom Enders, who recently spoke of plans to create a fleet, with testing being discussed for this year.

“100 years ago, urban transport went underground. Now we have the technological wherewithal to go above ground,” he said. “With flying, you don’t need to pour billions into concrete bridges and roads.”

Perhaps put that project into the ‘maybe’ pile.

Then there are the outlandish – yet entirely feasible – ideas, such as Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, or South Korea’s planned tube-enclosed train that can travel at speeds of up to 1,000kph.

It all, in the end, comes back to cars though. And since the turn of the year, things have sped up considerably.

For example, Christmas had barely passed when BMW revealed that its alliance with Intel and Mobileye would result in 40 self-driving test cars hitting the road by the second half of this year.

Between then and now, the latter two have become one, with Intel spending $15.3bn on Mobileye’s computer vision technology expertise. Intel previously bought a 15pc stake in Here, the mapping and location software firm formerly owned by Nokia, which is now co-owned by Audi, BMW and Daimler.

To match that, Alibaba was revealed as the lead investor in an $18m splurge on smart car technology developer WayRay, a company that develops holographic displays on car windshields.

None of these companies are purely positioned for AVs but, as electric vehicles and OS dashboards inevitably fill the space between today’s crewed cars and the driverless future, multiple vendors represent far likelier success outcomes than one huge gamble.

For example, Audi isn’t pushing for its own autonomous car; it is recruiting additional expertise though the likes of Nvidia. 2020 is when it plans to reveal a driverless release.

Autonomous vehicles

The auto piloted car Audi S7 at the Paris Motor show 2016. Image: Frederic Legrand – COMEO/Shutterstock

Assist, not replace?

Nissan has approval to test driverless cars in the UK, while restrictive rules to only allow car manufacturers to test in certain US states is already under the spotlight by peripheral businesses.

Educational institutes are also getting in on the action. For example, IBM partnered with University College Dublin (UCD) for a pretty cool study into driver assistance, rather than replacement.

Utilising Watson, as always, IBM and UCD essentially created a piece of software that “mitigates risk”, according to Robert Shorten, who led the study.

“The idea is to produce something that doesn’t intrude, doesn’t require any input from the driver, but is there, watching the car, ready to intervene if it senses any risk to the journey,” said Shorten of a screen that sits on the dashboard advising drivers where to go, adapting to known variables such as opening and closing times, road blockages and peaks in traffic.

It’s electric. It’s always electric. Cars are going electric. But should these end up on the streets of Cork, Cheshire, Charlemont or Szczecin come the end of the decade, can the current infrastructure cope?

Interior of the Mercedes Benz autonomous concept car at the 86th International Geneva Motor Show in Palexpo, Geneva. Image: VanderWolf Images

Interior of the Mercedes Benz autonomous concept car at the 86th International Geneva Motor Show in Palexpo, Geneva. Image: VanderWolf Images/Shutterstock

Call to action

According to the European Federation for Transport and Environment (T&E), governments need to act – and some are certainly doing that.

This is best displayed in the gradual roll-out of electric charging stations across Europe, any lack of which completely undermines a shift away from petrol-based cars of old.

“Actions from both the private and public sectors are required,” said Yoann Le Petit, clean vehicles and mobility officer with the T&E.

“To ensure there is a mutual interest in developing charging points and speeding up EV production, a zero-emission vehicle mandate (similar to the one in place in California) offers a good solution,” said Le Petit.

“On top of that, official bodies at EU, national [and] local levels should keep providing incentive schemes (such as grants or tax rebates) to promote charging infrastructure deployment.”

Incentive schemes for infrastructure builds are needed to attract innovation from companies in the electric vehicles space to satisfy the investment they have already made in transport, which will operate on this unfinished infrastructure.

It’s a strange world but, given the enthusiastic innovation, acquisitions and public trials of all things autonomous, a driverless future seems nearer than ever.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic