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Autonomic vehicle trends

How much longer before we won’t need to drive our own cars?

The idea of self-driving vehicles is nothing new. For decades now, we’ve imagined what it’ll be like to own driverless cars. But when will it come true?

Autonomic vehicle trends

Computers have drastically changed our world. Thanks to them, we’ve been able to significantly speed up both research and development. As a result, today’s automobiles are filled with technology that used be the stuff of science fiction. Today’s biggest topic is the development of autonomous driving, a feature which is steadily becoming a standard part of modern vehicle equipment. 

Autonomous driving is no revolutionary novelty; it’s been a part of airplane design for years. Modern airplanes execute the majority of a flight without any input from a pilot. An effort to decrease the amount of airplane accidents has yielded innovations such as anti-collision hardware and systems to enable computer communication between airplanes.

So we’ve already got the necessary technology, but adapting it for ground transportation poses certain challenges. While training artificial intelligence to recognize another vehicle or the distance between objects is fairly simple, adapting it for the complexities of real-life traffic conditions is a different story.

Developers are currently in the process of figuring out the best way to teach artificial intelligence to react to the variety of unexpected situations that can occur during a commute. To do this, they use simulations, which allow for cheaper, more effective, and safer testing conditions than real life situations. The goal of performing simulation testing is to observe variable parameters which are subsequently adjusted for further testing.

The International Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), which brings together professionals from the flight, automotive and transportation industries, has separated autonomous driving systems into five categories:

  1. No automation: Driver has full control and operates the vehicle on his own. At maximum, the vehicle gives notices or alerts.
  2. Driver support: Electronics may intervene in vehicle operation. For example, it may accelerate, slow down or turn the vehicle slightly, but it can only perform one function at a time.  Most often this includes less advanced cruise control systems complemented by vehicle lane maintenance.
  3. Partial automation: Can perform the same functions as driver support, but is able to perform more than one at a time. The vehicle can accelerate or decelerate and turn the steering wheel at the same time. Driver has to be prepared to take over driving at any time.
  4. Conditional automation: The system can take full control of the vehicle under certain conditions, but the driver must always be ready to take over control if notified by the vehicle. The Autopilot system from Tesla belongs into this category.
  5. High automation: A person can drive the vehicle themselves if they want, but it’s not necessary.
  6. Full automation: The vehicle handles all conceivable situations and doesn’t need to be equipped with a steering wheel. So far only theory.

So the necessary technology has already been developed. There are, however, still obstacles to overcome on the way to the widespread use of autonomous driving technologies. Those predominantly lie in infrastructure and legislature development. There are also questions of ethics to be answered.

Even airplanes with advanced autonomous functions aren’t capable of independent movement on a runway, a wide open space with minimum obstacles that is equipped with easily legible markings. The operation of fully autonomous vehicles on roads with hard to read or even missing horizontal labeling, a number of obstacles, unexpected situations and heavy traffic is currently impossible. An effective and safe operation on the road requires significant investments into infrastructure development.  

 Other obstacles lie in the legislative sector. How should a system act when danger is imminent to people both inside and outside of the vehicle? Who should it save and who should it “sacrifice”? How can it minimize consequences? Who is responsible for damage or loss of life caused by an autonomous vehicle?

The operation of lower level autonomous systems, including things such as cruise control or anti-collision hardware, makes our commute on overcrowded roads easier. Complete vehicle automation, however, is still a part of the future, as their comprehensive operational structure has yet to be fully developed.