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09 Apr 15 18:48

Like the saying on your car mirrors, utilization of autonomous car technology can sometimes feel so close… yet at the same time, seem a world away.

Last week, Delphi Automotive completed the first-ever trip across the US by an autonomous car. As stated in the article, their engineers were surprised to learn that their vehicle sometimes behaved a lot like a human driver. For example, the vehicle often moved to the left a little when passing trucks, signifying the very human trait of "fear" of those trucks. This is something that I personally wouldn't have expected and apparently others didn't expect either.

So where exactly are we in the technology of autonomous vehicles? On the heels of the Delphi cross-country test drive, you might think that we'll all be driving in fully-autonomous vehicles in the very near future. But this is very much an open question.

Mark Fields, CEO of Ford went on record in January stating that he expects an automaker could launch an autonomous car within the next five years. Interestingly, he doesn't think Ford is likely to meet that time-frame since "we (Ford) want to make sure it is accessible for everyone and not just, let's say, luxury car customers." Conversely, a prediction by consulting firm McKinsey is that it will take until about 2025.

But what does "autonomous" really mean? According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, their definition ranges from Level 0 – no automation to Level 4 – full self-driving, no steering wheel necessary! In between, there is Level 1 which includes enhanced braking features that are available on most new cars today, Level 2 – includes cars with driver-assist features that will steer, brake and accelerate based on surroundings, and Level 3 – limited self-driving automation where the driver must stay alert and be prepared to take control, if necessary.

Level 3 is where much of the testing is being done with Mercedes-Benz (F 015 Luxury in Motion), Google, Continental and Delphi. Cadillac will introduce features on two select 2017 Cadillac models that give the ability to communicate with other cars, traffic lights and other elements of traffic infrastructure.

Many used vehicles on the road are still level 0 on this scale but most new cars are somewhere in the range of level 1 (especially enhanced braking systems) to level 2. Advancements are starting to happen at a fast pace. Level 3 is currently being tested in a rapidly expanding environment, as was seen in the Delphi example above.

In addition, Elon Musk of Tesla stated a few weeks back that Tesla would introduce autonomous technology by this summer that would allow drivers to have their cars take control on what he called "major roads." He said that a software update, rather than a mechanical repair would give Tesla's Model S sedans the ability to start driving themselves, at least part of the time. Level 4 is also in the testing phase but on a very controlled basis. How long will it be before this testing expands to a similar place as we're currently in for level 3 vehicles?

Another important factor here is the cost. Similar to hybrids and electric vehicles, even when the technology is available, it might not be accessible to the "average" consumer out there. Clearly the Tesla vehicles will not be geared towards middle class consumers.

Obviously there's still a pretty wide range about expectations of the future on this topic. Predictions range from this summer by Tesla to 2025 by the McKinsey study. But everybody is in agreement that this is coming sooner rather than later. And who knows how fast technology will continue to develop from there.

What do you think? How long will it be until you can look over during your drive to work and see a car without a driver behind the wheel. How long until travel is similar to what the TV show "The Jetsons" portrayed?


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2 Comments

Cezar Rujan - 15 Apr 2015, 10:59 a.m.

I think the first vehicles in line for level 4 automation will be trucks. It would improve the supply chain as it could eliminate aggressive driving and also eliminate resting times mandated by hours of service regulations. All in all lowering risk.
A level4 taxi also sounds appealing to me, the number of maximum passengers is increased, the seating configuration could be changed for added safety or social enhancement, and the route could be selected via app by the passenger based on preference or real time traffic data.

Terry Knull - 16 Apr 2015, 8:34 p.m.

Thanks for your comment Cezar. I'll comment on both of your suggestions:
1). Autonomous trucks - I have heard this opinion from other sources as well. Some in the industry envision having a gathering place at one end of the Interstate system (e.g. New York). If there are 20 semi trucks that need to get to California, these trucks can be driven to this gathering place. They're then switched to autonomous mode and programmed to follow a vehicle with a driver (or 2 drivers to allow for adequate rest time for the lead vehicle). The trucks drive across country in this "convoy" fashion. That's one possible scenario.
2). Autonomous taxis - this is also an interesting idea, especially for inner city areas. The loss experience for taxi cabs in these metro areas tends to be quite poor, and it's largely due to aggressive driving. This would be avoided with autonomous vehicles. Of course, people would have to accept that it may take them a few minutes longer to get to their destination, but the safety of the trip would be greatly enhanced. Also, with the ability to be more in tune with traffic patterns, many trips may actually be faster AND safer at the same time.


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