Tech and auto manufacturing companies all over the world have been developing autonomous vehicles for quite some time. But perfecting the technology remains elusive, despite incredible progress being made. So just how close are we to a future of automated vehicles and self-driving cars?
Obviously, developing a self-driving car is no simple task. It’s a futuristic technology that has captured our imagination for decades. But only recently has a car that can accelerate, brake, turn corners, change lanes and park, while avoiding other cars and padestrians, been more than a pipe dream.
These are the five levels of driving automation according to the Society of Automotive Engineers, with Level 0 being no automation whatsoever and five being fully autonomous where it’s not necessary for a driver to be behind the wheel.
We have already achieved Level 1 automation some time ago, with things like adaptive cruise control being built into automotives for some time, but getting to level 5 is a completely different ball game. So where are we now and how far away is level 5 automation?
Tesla autonomous vehicles only at Level 2
In October last year, Elon Musk announced that Tesla’s Fully Self-Driving (FSD) software would be released to a small number of beta testers in the United States.
However, a leak of Tesla’s recent email correspondence with the California Department of Motor Vehicles revealed that Tesla’s “autosteer on the streets” capability is only at Level 2 autonomy, even though Musk claimed that Tesla would be close to Level 5 by the end of the year, according to Forbes.
So has Elon Musk made an empty promise? Possibly, but he also boasts a ridiculous amount of real-world data that has been gathered from Tesla vehicles already on the street. Data is their flagship offering and being able to tell how drivers react in real-world scenarios will take them miles ahead of the competition even if they have inferior technology. Musk has already said in the past that he intends to run Tesla’s autonomous vehicles using cameras only, rather than putting unnecessary effort in to developing technologies such as Lidar, which is where Tesla appears to have has fallen behind.
“What seems likely is that by classifying autosteer on city streets as Level 2, it will gain this approval and be allowed out of beta sooner,” writes Forbes‘ James Morris. “This, in turn, will mean that more people use it and Tesla can collect data from this massive, live, autonomous driving experiment. This is fundamental for the arrival of self-driving cars.
“The technology is only partly about how good your sensors are at detecting the environment. The bigger problem is dealing with the unpredictable behaviour of that environment – weather, human drivers, pedestrians, animals. That is something human drivers learn about primarily through experience, and FSD will have to do the same. The more people who use autosteer on city streets, the better it will become, and the more likely it will be that it can move up the levels and evolve into full autonomy.”
“The self-driving industry is consolidating”
After General Motors subsidiary, Cruise acquired the promising start-up, Voyage, in the latest autonomous vehicles merger. What makes Voyage special is that they already have a fleet of autonomous vehicles operating within closed retirement villages in Florida and California. They are the only company with a fully autonomous fleet operating, albeit within closed environments and traveling at low-speeds. But Voyage does not simply want to be an autonomous vehicle for senior citizens and Cruise has the resources to take the Voyager fleet out of the retirement home into dense, urban settings.
Cruise also recently began testing fully autonomous vehicles in San Fransisco and planned to create a taxi service in 2019, but haven’t committed to a new date after that was delayed. Other mergers in the autonomous vehicle industry. They also have developed a self-driving vehicle, the Cruise Origin, which has no steering wheel or pedals and is intended for ride sharing, but it’s unclear as to whether this idea will take off in the post-Covid era or if it will have to undergo some design changes at the very least. Cruise recently unveiled a new set of safety protocols intended to keep people socially distant during trips and the vehicle sanitised between fares, according to The Verge.
Last month, Lidar and autonomous vehicle start-up, Aeva, went public after completing a merger which brought about some $560 million in proceeds, according to The Motley Fool.
The Volkswagen Group are among some of the big names in automotive components manufacturing that Aeva has reached agreements with in recent months and they look like they will be the company that will realise the dream of developing Lidar – a method for determining ranges by targeting an object with a laser and measuring the time for the reflected light to return to the receiver.
Lidar will make it possible for autonomous vehicles to react faster to unpredictable events and respond appropriately. It is set to be a game-changer.
Autonomous Vehicles seem to be closer to becoming a reality by the day and there are plenty of exciting developments that are making the headlines. The industry is in its infancy and regulation will need to catch up, but it’s starting to look more and more likely that the first cars with Level 5 autonomy can be released in the next few years.
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