Navigant Research Blog

For Self-Driving Cars, Automakers Consult Silicon Valley

— December 10, 2014

The fully autonomous vehicle (AV) is coming, and early models will be on roads sometime around 2020.  To reach this milestone, automakers are turning to Silicon Valley for its expertise in connected devices, the Internet of Things, and human-machine interfaces.  A recent tour of the 18-month-old Nissan Research Center (NRC-SV) in Sunnyvale, California underscored the importance of this trend in relation to the automotive industry’s development of the AV of the future.

While some autonomous drive systems that rely on cameras, lasers, and sensors, such as lane keeping and automatic braking, don’t require vehicle connectivity, the fully autonomous vehicle will.

Reaction Time

The fact that AVs are likely to be far safer than non-autonomous, human-driven vehicles has been well-established.  However, to provide the type of near guaranteed safety the auto industry and customers require, the fully autonomous vehicle described by NRC-SV Director Martin Sierhuis will be “the most complex system in the world.”

For starters, the fully autonomous vehicle needs to be able to communicate with other vehicles and infrastructure, anticipate/predict human and non-human (animal) behavior, be personable, constantly observe and relay information back to the Internet, and act quickly upon information received from all these sources.

Watch for Deer

Information on weather conditions, traffic congestion, and road construction are valuable assets to other vehicles and, in an ideal system, can be transferred seamlessly.  Further, observations made by vehicles can be used to maintain a near real-time map of the world, given changes to road infrastructure.  However, the most valuable pieces of information will be on how AV predictive systems can be improved and how AVs fail.

A major challenge for AVs is the unpredictability of the world.   The awkward four-way stops, the sudden trajectory deviations, the deer on the side of the road, the ear buds-wearing bicyclists in downtown San Francisco, etc. all have to be accounted for.  To function effectively, an AV must be able to predict both human and animal behavior better than humans do.  Predictions are based on data; as more data is accumulated on humans through AVs, they will in turn be better able to predict human behavior and, therefore, safer in the more pedestrian-centric urban environments.

The above are all examples in which the sharing of information from AV to AV will avoid catastrophe; however, it must be assumed that failures will eventually happen.  Yet, the silver lining will be that when the AV eventually does fail, the circumstances of that failure will be shared, and the overall system will learn from it.  As Sierhuis explained, “The same accident will never occur again.”

 

Autonomous Vehicles Coming Sooner Than Predicted

— October 14, 2014

Recent developments in the automotive industry indicate that semi-autonomous vehicles may be coming to market sooner than previously expected.  In early September, General Motors announced that it will introduce a 2017 Cadillac model equipped with advanced driver assist technology – allowing drivers to travel at highway speeds without touching the steering wheel or pedals.  Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, stated that the company plans to introduce self-driving technology in the next 3 years with the new Model 3 electric sedan (due for release in 2017).  Musk also gave some longer-term forecasts: “Full auto-pilot capability is going to happen, probably, in the 5- or 6-year time frame.”  Additionally, Audi became the first company to receive the newly established autonomous driving permit, issued by the state of California.  As discussed in earlier blogs by my colleague David Alexander, the United Kingdom, China, and South Korean company Hyundai have also been active in the autonomous vehicle space.

New Market Entrants

Israel-based technology company Mobileye has recently received considerable media attention and market interest for its advanced driver assistance technology.  The company went public on August 6, 2014 at $25.00 per share.  Since the IPO, Mobileye’s share price has more than doubled to $51.23 as of September 24.  The company’s products are integrated into vehicle models from global automakers, including BMW, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Nissan, and Volvo.  Mobileye also works with several Tier One suppliers, including Autoliv, Delphi, Continental, Magna Electronics, and TRW Automotive.

Too Big to Ignore

Growing interest in autonomous vehicles can be attributed to the fact that the benefits of the technology are simply too large and far-reaching for policymakers, investors, and analysts to ignore.  In the United States alone, 33,561 people died and about 2.36 million people were injured as a result of traffic accidents in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  The majority of all auto accidents (75% to 90%) are caused by driver error, distraction, or impairment.  In theory, fully autonomous vehicle traffic would prevent nearly all of these driver-related accidents.  Self-driving vehicle technology also has the potential to drastically reduce CO2 emissions, traffic congestion, and the stress of driving.

Navigant Research expects the global market for fully autonomous vehicles to average about 4.6% of new vehicle sales in 2025, rising to 40% in 2030 and reaching nearly 75% by 2035.

 

Autonomous Vehicles Will Work Best Within Limits

— October 1, 2014

About the only way your next car has much chance of driving itself is if you live in a gated community or on a college campus where it won’t have to deal with too many variables like other traffic.  Just as voice recognition systems work best with limited vocabularies, autonomous vehicles will probably be limited to such constrained environments for the foreseeable future.  That’s the conclusion from the recent ITS World Congress 2014 in Detroit.  Increasing levels of vehicle automation were a major topic of discussion during the annual conference on intelligent transportation systems.

Google has been pushing the idea that self-driving vehicles will hit the road within the next 5 years.  Google had no official presence at the conference, but a lot of companies that build cars, parts, and infrastructure systems were there, and no one that I spoke with was in agreement with Google’s timing projections.  The general consensus is that we won’t see widespread use of full operating range autonomous vehicles until closer to 2030.

Not Street-Ready

That’s not to say that no one believes in automated driving; quite the opposite.  It’s just that in engineering circles, there’s a rule of thumb known as the 90/10 rule.  That is, 90% of the technical challenge of a project takes about 10% of the time and effort.  The last 10% takes the other 90% of the time.  In the realm of self-driving cars, we have just begun that last 10% phase, where the basic hardware elements are all worked out but a lot of software decisions have yet to be made in order for autonomous systems to be truly robust.

Much of the on-road development by Google and other companies has been occurring in places like California and Nevada, where environmental factors like snow and even rain are a rarity.  In order for autonomous vehicles to be both commercially and legally viable, they’ll have to work reliably under any weather and road conditions.

General Motors (GM), Volkswagen, and other automakers have been working on autonomous technology much longer than Google, and they understand these limitations.  When GM rolled out a two-seat self-driving pod car known as the Electric Networked-Vehicle, or EN-V, at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, program leader Dr. Chris Borroni-Bird acknowledged that, while this type of vehicle would eventually be an ideal way to deal with the congestion problems of megacities like New York, Shanghai, and Mumbai, the first feasible real-world applications were likely to be in restricted environments, such as campuses and gated communities.

Say Again

As powerful as computers have become, they still don’t deal with the nuances of the real world very well.  That’s why voice recognition systems still struggle to understand what should be simple natural language commands on a smartphone.  The most successful applications of the technology have been for tasks like medical transcription, with limited and specific word vocabularies and little ambient noise.  Similarly, automated vehicles function best in constrained spaces, such as buses over fixed routes or the aforementioned commuter pods.

Google hasn’t actually made any major breakthroughs in the technology that we know of.  It just jumped into field relatively recently, hiring many of the engineers and scientists that worked on the autonomous vehicles fielded by automakers in the DARPA Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge competitions of 2006 and 2007, and leveraging the cost declines of the required sensors.

Where Google has outdone the incumbents is getting the technology media to talk about their efforts – but that’s unlikely to put full-function self-driving cars into consumers’ hands any sooner.

 

A Few Steps Closer to Autonomous Vehicles

— September 30, 2014

As engineers, scientists, executives, and government officials involved with transportation systems gather in Detroit this week for the annual ITS World Congress, the auto industry took another incremental step along the 60-plus-year road to autonomous vehicles.

In her keynote address, General Motors (GM) CEO Mary Barra announced that two of the technologies that are building blocks toward a driverless future will come to market in 2016.  The 2017 Cadillac CTS will be the first production car from GM equipped with vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications technology.  Barra did not provide any details about exactly what sort of information would be exchanged between cars equipped with the technology, but messages will likely include alerts about brake applications, slippery road conditions, and position and speed as the vehicle approaches an intersection.

GM is the first automaker to announce that it will equip a production vehicle with V2V technology, but it’s likely that other premium brands will soon follow suit, especially now that the U.S. Department of Transportation has begun the process of writing rules to mandate the technology in the coming years.

Beyond Cruise Control

Barra also announced that a new Cadillac model that has yet to be revealed will be the first car in its lineup equipped with super cruise technology.  Super cruise is a semi-autonomous highway driving mode that combines advanced radar-based adaptive cruise control with upgraded camera-based lane-following capability.  In traffic, the system is able to bring the car to a full stop, automatically restarting as soon as the leading car moves.  GM first demonstrated super cruise to media in 2012 and has continued to refine the system.

In the days before the official opening of the ITS World Congress, Toyota held a separate advanced safety systems seminar where it demonstrated a system very similar to super cruise installed in the Lexus GS 450h.  The system also includes the capability to determine which lane the car is in to provide the driver with alerts for potential hazards, such as traffic merging from the left or exit-only lanes.  GPS doesn’t provide enough precision to determine which lane a vehicle is in, and Toyota engineers declined to provide specifics, but the system almost certainly uses the new higher-fidelity camera that is installed as part of the lane-tracking system.

Driver Still Required

Toyota also announced that this system would be coming to market very soon, but would not be as specific as GM.  During the technology demonstrations at the congress, Honda also demonstrated its own automated highway driving system, although it has not yet announced when the system will reach production.

The key to these systems is that they do not completely replace the driver, but simply reduce the workload during some of the more monotonous aspects of highway driving.  Unlike Google, which is extremely bullish on autonomous vehicles, traditional automakers, which are more familiar with the realities of putting high-technology cars in customers’ hands, are taking a much more cautious approach.

 

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