The old adage “may you live in interesting times” certainly applies to our world today. The coronavirus has challenged us all in so many ways and shifted the paradigm for the mobility industry and so many others. Vehicle autonomy and the required effort in investment was already hitting a reality check before the health crisis, and now it faces even more hurdles.
But autonomy is still not a matter of if, but when. Safety is a major driver here—it is estimated that up to 90% of vehicle accidents are the result of human error, and thus cars that can do the driving themselves are an attractive solution—not to mention that efficiency can be significantly increased by allowing people to work or do other activities rather than concentrating on the driving task. So, autonomy will come across the spectrum of vehicles but at different rates of adoption.
The autonomy challenge is greatest for personal passenger vehicles due to the mind-boggling variety of road scenarios a driver can encounter. On the technology side of this equation, precise environmental sensing is key. The autonomous vehicle can’t respond to what it can’t “see.” The good news is that sensing technologies like camera, radar, LiDAR, and thermal imaging are continuously becoming more accurate and capable. These technologies are sensing the full 360-degree environment in greater detail than ever before, but areas like crowded urban environments present many challenges.
Among the greatest barriers to higher levels of autonomy in personal passenger cars is managing the cost of the large number of sensors and high-powered processors required to crunch the data as well as the cost and difficulty of processing storing and managing huge amounts of data and the challenge of algorithm development across myriad road scenarios. Given this backdrop, the smartest way forward for passenger vehicles is to continuously evolve the advanced driver assist and semi-automated driving systems already available today that enhance safety and make things like highway journeys easier for drivers.
Level 2/2+ systems that allow popular comfort functions, like hands- and feet-free driving on the highway, are the most practical solutions in the short term. In addition, these ADAS-based systems serve as an ever-vigilant extra set of eyes on the roadway to provide warnings and can even take action in an emergency situation if the driver is not responding, such as automatic emergency braking systems. Importantly, we will drive the cost of these systems down to a price point that will allow drivers of affordable passenger cars to experience and understand the safety and convenience these systems will bring.
More near-term opportunities to bring higher levels of autonomy exist in other market sectors, like commercial vehicles, and in targeted areas, like crowded urban environments. The continued rise of mega-cities will mean more of the earth’s population will be located there than ever before.
Moving people and goods in these crowded areas will call for more specialty autonomous vehicles that initially run on pre-determined routes at lower speeds to deliver people and goods to their destination, and solutions like people movers and robo-taxis will become more commonplace. Given the coronavirus concerns over potential health risks of riding together in multi-seat vehicles, goods delivery now is receiving greater attention as a greater percentage of the first applications.
Many experts believe that higher levels of vehicle autonomy will come to the commercial vehicle industry first due to economic drivers for greater safety and efficiency. There is also a significant challenge in finding commercial vehicle drivers as the average age of long-haul truck drivers continues to increase, and it is estimated that 100,000 truck drivers will be needed in the U.S. alone in the next several years.
Bringing the autonomous transformation to many different modes of transportation will continue. While the transition will take time consumers will reap safety, comfort, and convenience benefits along the journey. The DNA of autonomous technology is ADAS and its “genetic” fingerprint will still be found in autonomous technology long after the term ADAS no longer applies.