The race to roll out reliable self-driving cars in the mainstream market continues apace. The U.S. Senate has signified its approval of a deal that enables automakers to put self-driving cars on public roadways. The only stipulation is the driverless technology must save lives, improve mobility (particularly for people with disabilities), and create new jobs. If those stipulations are met, driverless cars could be ready to go full throttle in the years ahead.
Car companies have been clamoring for a law that will disallow individual states to block the use of self-driving cars, or at least for consistent legislation, as well as battling to permit autonomous cars without steering wheels and pedals. In effect, such regulations would set a clearer path and ease restrictions for auto manufacturers. In the meantime, automakers continue to occupy themselves by developing self-driving car capabilities at their R&D facilities.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed legislation in a bipartisan effort to put the U.S. at the forefront of driverless technologies.
The House bill lets automotive manufacturers roll out 25,000 self-driving cars. That initial number will be increased to 100,000 units once the safety factor is established. Automakers need to prove that the artificial intelligence controlling the cars is as safe as human drivers. The measure allows self-driving cars to hit U.S. roadways in a couple of years.
First to market
Tesla’s Elon Musk kickstarted the implementation of fully automated vehicles and charging stations. Not to be left behind, Japan’s Nissan and Germany’s Daimler AG have both announced self-driving cars rolling out within a decade. Carmakers have acknowledged that there will be numerous challenges, foremost of which are the technical setbacks, legal questions, and safety considerations that must be addressed before driverless cars hit the road.
While Tesla has made inroads in developing automated vehicles and led the way to the next-generation electric vehicle charging stations, it recently received flak for announcing “a network of autonomous cars whose owners can routinely loan them out to reduce their own costs or even make money,” the New York Post reported. Jerry Skillett, CEO of Citizens Parking, a parking and travel services platform, cited the big disconnect between the technical possibilities and the likeliness of consumer behavior.
Jumping into the fray
To date, carmakers have come a long way from the initial plans for self-driving cars. Among the car companies that have incorporated self-driving capabilities in their offerings is Audi. The company released the A8, a commercial vehicle with level 3 self-driving capability.
Technology giants like Google have also jumped into the fray to bring driverless cars to the market. Waymo, the self-driving division of Google’s parent company Alphabet, has collaborated with Honda Motor Company, which had established some cutting-edge technologies for autonomous vehicles, as well as with Chrysler.
Famous British brand Bentley has also announced that it is working on autonomous technology. Bentley’s engineering head has been vocal about integrating driverless technologies into existing cars within the bounds of what its customers may opt for. In other words, the company believes that, while it needs to keep abreast of the latest trends in the automotive industry, there will still be situations where customers will want to take the steering wheel.
In a similar manner, Toyota has taken a two-pronged approach to its autonomous car program. Deploying autonomous vehicles is in the automaker’s timeline, but it continues to work on technology for regular production cars that will allow motorists to shift between assisted and full autonomy. Interestingly, Ford has taken a different track from many of its rival carmakers, such as Tesla and Nissan. The company is eyeing what is known in industry terms as levels 4 and 5 autonomy. The goal is to come up with vehicles that never need human intervention and likely won’t even have steering wheel and pedals.
Last year, Ford announced plans to launch these driverless vehicles by 2021, but stressed that it would target ride-hailing services and other Fleet customers. Both Uber and Lyft have set up their own autonomous vehicle development programs.
Bolstering efforts to deploy self-driving cars in the market in the near future are partnerships between automakers, ride-hailing firms, and tech firms. Ford has partnered with Lyft as part of its long-term plan to offer driverless vehicles.
Meanwhile, Toyota Research Institute picked up on startup firm Luminar prior to its launch in April. Toyota’s chief technology officer acknowledged its early incorporation of the Luminar platform into its fleet to accelerate its self-driving car program.
Luminar has built a factory in Florida that will produce 10,000 lidar units in 2017, and Toyota happens to be among the four companies the startup has partnered with. Lidar, of course, is a state-of-the-art technology that measures distance by utilizing laser light to generate highly accurate 3D maps of the world around the car. To date, several firms, including Uber and Waymo, are developing their own light detection and ranging radar (lidar) technologies.
Tech startup firms in different parts of the world are also bracing for driverless cars. U.K.-based company FiveAI has not let comparatively lesser financial resources stop it from developing a fully autonomous software system that can be used for self-driving cars.
Using lidar, FiveAI hopes to deploy a service in the U.K. to pick people up and drop them off safely at a competitive price. The approach is to capture video data that can be used to train an AI to foretell or calculate what will happen in roads. CCTV footages, using computer simulations, will be instrumental in building models of what occurs at street junctions.
The startup firm is looking to partner with other firms to actualize its grand vision. For now, traditional automakers are leading the race to develop and fine-tune driverless car technologies, but the roles that technology firms and rideshare companies will be playing cannot be discounted.
Greg Robinson is a tech entrepreneur with interest in emerging technologies, particularly VR/AR, 3D technologies, and how artificial intelligence will affect the future of work.