History of Autonomous Vehicles
Since humans invented wheels, they have been tinkering with putting them to good use. One of the most primary uses of wheels was of course for transportation. Horse driven chariots allowed humans to move in relative comfort, as opposed to travelling horseback. Then came ‘horseless carriages’, which were contraptions that had some mechanism to propel it forward and ran on steam, electricity and gasoline. There is no clear answer as to ‘who invented the first automobile in the world?’, but the journey of the automobile of the 1890’s to those of today has been amazing. Indeed, the economy of many a nation owes its progress to well networked roadways that made transportation of goods and people easier. The U.S.A. is a prime example of how the automobile shaped the nation. The mainstay of the U.S. economy relies heavily on the transport of goods, and automobiles (primarily trucks and trailers) play a stellar role in that. One of the first major industries in the country of the 20th century was the automobile industry, and there are many fascinating tales of how fortunes were made and lost in the in manufacturing of automobile. As the automobile industry grew and technology advanced, humans invented different kinds of vehicles – from earth moving vehicles to gigantic trailers with more than 100 tyres – and each passing decade has bought technology induced progress in vehicles. From single cylinder to multi cylinder, from sparkplugs to multi point fuel injection systems, from automatic to manual transmission, from keys to biometric vehicle access, and from seatbelts to pre-collision alerts, technology has always shaped the auto sector. The aim of such innovations is to make driving more comfortable, easier, and safer. The next logical goal is to develop cars that run without drivers. And if you think that the concept of such driverless cars is a recent phenomenon, you are mistaken. One of the very first experiments in a self propelled, driverless car was carried out in 1925, which unfortunately lost control twice before colliding with another stationary vehicle. However, the quest for a truly driverless automobile has been ongoing since that time, and today we are very close to achieving that goal.
By definition, an autonomous vehicle (AV) is a vehicle that can drive itself without input from a human driver. They are also called as self-driving cars or driverless cars. Thanks to technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, such AVs can automatically sense and adapt to dynamically varying environment. Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) too play a key role in evaluating the safety of such driverless car. We will cover how an autonomous vehicle works in another article, and what roles do AI, machine learning, AR and VR play in their development.
Advantage of Autonomous Vehicles
Why opt for autonomous vehicles in the first place? There are two main reasons for that. In the early last century, when automobiles were just introduced, the fatalities due to vehicle crashes were alarming. Car accidents still continue to be the leading cause of accidental death in countries where automobile density is more. Rather than technology, one of the most primary causes of such accidents is human errors. Since truly driverless cars do not rely on human judgment, they seem to be a logical answer in reducing accidents. Human fatigue is another cause of accidents, especially where long journeys that last more than a day are concerned, and an AV would effectively reduce accidents caused by tired drivers. Yet another advantage of driverless cars is that there will be less congestion on the roads as traffic lights will connect with cars (thanks to Internet of Things or IoT) and regulate traffic flow based on real-time data. This will also reduce vehicular pollution. Since they are automated, such vehicles will also be capable of travelling more distance at a stretch than a human can. Another point to note is that self-driving vehicles will need to not only obey traffic laws but also to adapt to road conditions and implement driving strategies that account for uncertainty about what other road users will do. They are therefore expected to drive cautiously, rather than take a risk. Take the case where an AV is arriving at a signal where the lights are just turning from green to orange, before turning red. A human driver may be tempted to accelerate in the hope of beating the red signal; however a driverless car would most certainly play it safe and stop at the signal. To summarize, autonomous vehicles are expected to reduce accidents that occur due human error and fatigue, ease congestion and reduce vehicular pollution.
Classification of Autonomous Vehicles
As the race for driverless cars intensifies, there was a need to formalize the definition and levels of automation. The Society of Automotive Engineers, an internationally recognized professional association for standards development, classifies degrees of AV automobile as follows:
Level 0: No Automation: the driver performs all driving tasks
Level 1: Driver Assistance: vehicle is guided by driver, but some driving-assist features may be included in the vehicle
Level 2: Partial Automation: vehicle has combined automated functions, like acceleration and steering, but the driver must maintain control of all driving tasks and monitor the environment at all times
Level 3: Conditional Automation: vehicle can run autonomously, but the driver must be ready to take control of the vehicle at all times with notice
Level 4: High Automation: vehicle is capable of performing all driving functions under certain conditions, but the driver has the option to take control of vehicle
Level 5: Full automation: vehicle is capable of performing all driving functions under all conditions, but the driver may have the option to control the vehicle
These standards have been adopted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the US Department of Transportation as well, and accepted by major stakeholders in the automotive sector.
Most cars today have achieved automation up to two levels, with features like adaptive cruise control, park and lane keeping assist, adaptive front lights. But the leap from level 2 to level 3 will entail not only significant advances, but the coming together of numerous different technologies, which is the topic of our next article