Science fiction has always been an extremely popular genre whether in movies, in television, or in novels. Indeed, it is a fascination fueled by the innate imagination inside of every human being – the ability to dream endlessly about what the future may hold. However, as many sci-fi fans may tell you such fantasies usually stay as just that, a fantasy, as is the case of lightsabers from Star Wars, or The Starship Enterprise from Star Trek. But today the world is bearing witness to perhaps one of the greatest exceptions to this rule: automated vehicles. Posted below this paragraph is a video that details a brief history of the idea of automated vehicles for the first few minutes of the video’s run time. In the video the narrator explains not only have automated vehicles been around in some form for longer than most people would suspect, but also that the idea originated in a 1929 sci-fi magazine. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the future and we get to be a part of it here and now.
But now that we’ve succeed in merging one of the coolest ideas of science fiction into the real world, just what exactly are we doing with autonomous vehicles current day? Today’s post aims to take a shorter term approach and dig deep into what this technology is doing for us not in the future, but current day.
To start off, Tesla has been on the forefront of innovation since their insertion into the auto industry in 2003. Currently they are best known for their semi-automatic vehicles on the road that are impressive not only from a technological standpoint, but also for the fact that they are electric. The main driving force of Tesla is the CEO, Elon Musk, who can be frequently seen on social media and in various other meetings and talks supporting the progression of autonomous vehicles. The company constantly updates the software that goes into their cars, and are now soon to release their first autopilot software to be installed into their newer model cars. Musk was quoted in August as saying “What we’ve got will blow people’s minds, it blows my mind …it’ll come sooner than people think.” In connection with this, Bosch, the leading distributor of car parts has just released their first self driving vehicle. This is a huge step for Tesla because the software being used in the Bosch’s vehicle will be the same software in Tesla’s Autopilot 2.0. To help understand just how big a leap this is, a level system is used by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) when describing how autonomous certain vehicles are. Currently Tesla’s cars are at a level 2 autonomy, however these cars coming from Bosch rank higher at level 4 autonomy (fully functioning autonomous vehicle) thanks to the autopilot program that is soon to be released. The reason Tesla is now using the Bosch technology is because of an accident that occurred with one of their semi-autonomous in Florida because of a “technical failure” when the vehicle’s sensor could not recognize a tractor trailer due to it blending in with the glare of the sun. Due to the crash, Moblieye, an auto tech supplier left the company, so Tesla turned to Bosch. Despite this setback the world is still eagerly awaiting the next big piece of news to come from Tesla in the future.
The next company to look at is Ford, a longstanding and popular motor company that created the “first affordable automobile” the Model-T. However, that small 1927 revolution is nothing compared to what Ford is planning on releasing in 2021 as heard from CEO Mark Fields when he made the announcement on August 16th that Ford will release a level 4 autonomous vehicle. As the level system from the NHTSA above tells us, this is final level of autonomy which requires absolutely no human interaction. Interestingly, Ford also announced that this first new vehicle would not have steering wheels or control pads. Further, in 2021 Ford will not be selling the cars to the public but rather using the vehicles as a shuttle for their own employees. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this announcement from Ford is that they are skipping levels of autonomy and opting instead to release a vehicle which is fully autonomous. While some companies like Tesla, Google, and Uber are taking a more comprehensive approach with street testing and semi-autonomous vehicles first to move the software along this could all change extremely quick because Ford is opting for a more immediate route. Look for Ford and other U.S. auto companies to continue innovation and progress even further.
Finally, we step away from car manufacturers and take a look at the transport company, Uber. When Uber was founded in 2009 it instantaneously become a disruptive force in the automotive industry. Taxi drivers in all cities around the country scrambled to try to keep up with the massive changes that Uber was causing. Fast forward seven years and now Uber has upped the ante with a strong push in the world of autonomous innovation. Two months ago Uber rolled out autonomous vehicles on the streets of Pittsburgh. As of right now the cars unfortunately have a limited number of streets they can operate on due to programming constraints however this technology has gotten to the point where Uber drivers were only operating the vehicle close to 30% of the time on any given ride. This decision made many people wonder why Uber chose Pittsburgh for the initial testing of their automated vehicles as they are a California company and California is known as a state leading the way with laws and regulations allowing autonomous vehicles to hit the roads. The main reason for the Pittsburgh is surprisingly simple however, Carniege Mellon University, which is home to most of the technology that is driving Uber’s advancements. Additionally, the company felt it was important to have engineers close to the vehicles just in case anything happened. Thus far there have been two conflicting reports about two incidents involving accidents occurring with the new autonomous vehicles. However, both of the accidents were human error, one being the driver went down a one-way street and the other was an Uber vehicle that got rear ended by another vehicle. The critics are trying hard to restrct Uber because right now they are the closest company to moving this technology to a national level.
According to Reuters, various companies are just starting onto the onset of a competition between each other in the autonomous vehicle world. Indeed in terms of unlikely bedfellows , not only does Reuters have Uber slated to be Apple’s competition in the autonomous vehicle industry but they are also reporting that Google and Ford are rumored to partner in 2016 for automotive innovation. It would seem that many companies such as Google and Ford or Apple and Tesla are teaming up because while the tech and media companies have the advantage for Research and Development capabilities as well as existing computing technologies, the auto makers possess the industry expertise and facilities necessary to make the innovation a reality. Yet, Uber is arguably well placed to be the leader in this regard as they well capitalized and Uber has already brought many changes in the taxi-driver on demand sector. Uber is no longer simply viewed as a ridesharing app, current day it has now reached a market whereby using a smartphone to match demand and supply for automobiles efficiently and cheaper. Between Uber and Apple it would seem that Apple will need to utilize their technological capability to enter that sector in order to compete with Uber.
Meanwhile current day, Google has created a self-driving car with two routing programs, a “long term router” that acts much like the GPS device on a normal car, and another, short-term router that makes decisions on when to speed up, slow down, turn and execute other maneuvers. The self-driving car is poised to have a positive impact because there will be less accidents on the road, and as such less fatalities. At the moment, it would seem that autonomous vehicles are right around the corner waiting for the light to turn green so they can be allowed onto the streets of the United States.