Ever since I first heard about Tesla and their autopilot feature in 2015, I have been patiently waiting for autonomous cars. Yet they always seem to be just out of reach and in testing phases. Now with numerous companies researching self-driving vehicles, including Audi, Volvo, Cadillac, Mercedes, and even technology companies like Apple, Uber, Amazon, Cisco and so many more, you would think that by 2021 we would have something. Even then-US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx declared in 2016 that we’d have fully autonomous cars everywhere by 2021. So why aren’t we all being driven to class campus every week in our new autonomous cars?
The Vision of Fully Automated Cars
To understand more where I’m coming from, it might help if I give an explanation of the potential of an autonomous vehicle future. Optimistic urban planners started thinking what a city design could look like without the clutter of automotive detritus. There would be no more traffic signs or stoplights, no more cars parked by the side of the road. You would simply be dropped off at your destination and then the vehicles would leave. Cars would be able to chat with each other and the roads to control the flow of traffic. There would be no more car accidents, saving 1.3 million lives every single year. Obviously, this idealization of a fully autonomous vehicular world is not anywhere close and has many hurdles to cross if we are ever to reach there.
What’s Stopping Us?
Well to be honest, quite a lot. To start with, the technology is a lot tougher than expected. Not just the programming of the rules of the road, communicating with human drivers and pedestrians, who goes first at a four-way stop? It’s also getting sensors that work perfectly in all visibility conditions, including weather, flock of birds or some wind-blown leaves, it is a child’s ball that rolled into the road or just a trash bag? The cars need regulations as well, from the federal level all the way to the local level, all needing the support of the public as well. And I’m sure not even everyone reading this right now would feel completely comfortable being in an autonomous vehicle.
As simple and straightforward roads might look on a map for a program, what happens on them is normally quite the opposite. Humans are proficient driving cars, but not necessarily good at driving cars. Their imprecise and can be difficult to predict. So until every vehicle on the road is fully autonomous, which is seen to be very unlikely, every vehicle will have to be able to respond to every nuance of human drivers on a daily basis. The stuff that we can handle without even thinking about, is the stuff that autonomous vehicles are having a hard time catching up with.
Is There Any Hope?
There is! It might not be as fast as I would personally like it, but the technology behind autonomous vehicles is still making progress. Artificial intelligence systems are ever improving, and like I mentioned in my last blog post, can be taught to think more like humans. Allowing cars to be able to potentially better predict what other human drivers may do on the road.
Cloud systems and 5G networks are the potential next big step. Cloud computing allows engineers to offload data processing away from the vehicles themselves and onto more capable servers, leaving the autonomous drive systems to be in much better condition. The 5G network would enable a lot of features within these systems. The increased power of the 5G network will allow cities to better control traffic, cars will know every traffic signal in every intersection on the way to it’s destination, and vehicles will be able to communicate with each other for lane switches, traffic congestion, or weather.
The way that your GPS works now to detect traffic congestion and reroute you, would be the same way that the autonomous vehicles would but through a larger and more robust network. This can only be done when vehicles are communicating with each other and that is more viable now with the strength of 5G networks.
Even Covid-19 might be able to play a part in how the future of autonomous vehicles play out. The virus might permanently change the way that consumers feel about transportation. Some may want to stay away from public transportation or shared transportation, like Uber, for now on and would be more willing to have an autonomous vehicle pick them up and drop them off at their destination.
What are your thoughts on the future of self-driving cars and how do you imagine that automakers and other companies will react to the change in market with Covid?