In the race to be the first to eliminate the driver, everyone from BMW, Toyota, Mercedez to Google, Apple, Amazon have been announcing ambitious timelines and pouring in billions to achieve the holy grail of Level 5 autonomy. Let’s find out who is leading the pack.
Automaker companies are lining up to launch their versions of autonomous cars, where humans will essentially be backseat passengers. Researchers have forecast that by 2025 we will see approximately 8 million autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles on the road.
Such estimates are spurred by rapid advances in sensor types that underpin the technology, and AI capabilities. The optimism stems from the addition of LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) that provides reliable obstacle detection, and SLAM (Simultaneous Location and Mapping) to today’s ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) technology.
But what do these advancements actually mean? When will we be cruising smoothly, or sleeping snuggly in our driverless cars?
Before merging onto roadways, self-driving cars will first have to progress through 6 levels of automation, which are degrees of advancements in driver assistance technologies. What exactly are these levels?
The SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) defines 6 levels of driving automation ranging from 0, which is the current fully manual car, we are familiar with, to 5 which means full automation in all conditions.
Level 5 vehicles do not require human attention. They won’t even have steering wheels or acceleration/braking pedals. They will be free, and able to go anywhere and do anything that an experienced human driver can do. Let’s find out where have our carmakers reached so far?
Google’s Waymo, had been testing its Level 4 autonomous vans for a while now, with claim of trials in excess of 20 million miles of autonomous driving as of January 2020. On October 8, 2020 it opened its robo-taxi project to the general public in the US city of Phoenix, becoming the first widely available driverless ride service. The Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid vans are fully autonomous, and unsupervised rides. Watch it to believe it.
GM’s autonomous cars subsidiary Cruise, plans to begin testing unmanned autonomous vehicles by the end of this year in San Francisco, after receiving the permit to remove the human backup drivers from its self-driving cars.
The company had unveiled its first fully driverless prototype vehicle called Origin, in January 2020, specifically designed to operate without a driver. Origin does not have a steering wheel, pedals, or any controls typically associated with human driving.
In July Elon Musk proclaimed that Tesla will achieve the basic functionality for Level 5 autonomy by the end of this year. While Tesla’s current cars, come with Level 2 Autopilot, which requires the driver to remain alert and ready to act, with hands on the wheel, the claims of being very close to achieving Level 5 autonomy has been met with skepticism.
But Tesla’s total autonomous miles logged have grown exponentially from 0.1 billion in 2016 to an estimated 3 billion in April 2020, which is a crucial metric, as more training data typically makes the self-driving algorithms smarter.
When in February 2020 Nissan announced that its automated offering LEAF completed a record-breaking 230-mile autonomous drive in the UK in November last year, the industry watchers asked — has Nissan beaten Tesla to the post?
While it is a record for length of an autonomous journey in the UK, and It is also remarkable that it was completed without human intervention, on all kinds of roads, including motorways, and ordinary rural roads with no markings, the general consensus holds that there are too many unknowns from this trial to make any definite comparisons.
Two engineers remained in the car throughout the journey, which achieved its target of 99% self-navigation. Human drivers briefly took over the controls when the car pulled in at four service stations en route for checks and charging.
While Tesla has so far managed to make cars which require the human to pay constant attention and remain ready to take control at a moment’s notice, BMW is ready to take the next big step forward. In May 2020, the automaker laid out the broad strokes of its plan to introduce its Level 3 system in its iNext concept car, expected to debut in 2021
BMW’s car will not require the driver to watch the road, but must stay awake and buckled in. This level of self-driving will never require an immediate takeover, and only if something pushes the car out of its comfort zone, like sudden bad weather, or a busted sensor, it will ask the human to get back to driving.
While Ford released its Ford Autonomous Vehicle Dataset in March 2020 — containing data collected from its fleet of Ford Fusion Hybrids in the Greater Detroit Area, on April 29, it announced the postponement of its plans to launch an autonomous vehicle service to 2022, with the Covid 19 pandemic prompting a rethink of its market strategy.
The automaker is in the midst of an $11 billion restructuring plan as it pivots to emerging technologies such as all-electric and autonomous vehicles.
When will true self-driving technology be ready?
Making the truly driverless, and truly safe car is among the greatest technological challenges of our age. In the past years great strides has been made, with autonomous driving going from a distant possibility to inevitability, and now commercially available.
The hardware, to achieve it is mostly there, but the real job is to endlessly improve the software that interprets that sensor data to make safe and reliable mobility possible. The key to this is machine learning, which requires not just serious AI capabilities but massive real-world data to train the system.
Meanwhile, we have the semi-autonomous versions of the tech already on the market, like the Nissan ProPilot Assist, and Tesla Autopilot which keeps a car in their lane and a safe distance from other cars, allowing the people behind the wheel to take their hands off the wheel, if not the road.
In the next part of this blog, we will continue to take a look at the major autonomous offerings from the likes of Mercedes, Audi, Baidu, and more.