Where’s My Driverless Car? — II
In the past few years, carmakers have introduced innovative technology features that assist us while driving and made cars safer and more entertaining to drive. But where are all the self-driving cars we were promised years ago?
The driverless, robot cars of our science-fiction fantasies are definitely coming, but it is taking longer than anticipated. While the ever-optimistic Elon Musk, who had once claimed that a fleet of Tesla robotaxis would be on the road by 2020, and still claims that Tesla will achieve Level 5 autonomy by the end of this year, Ford postponed their self-driving car to 2022, and GM’s Cruise continues to persevere — the optimism for autonomous vehicles is quietly transforming into honest realism. The rush to be the first has apparently been adjusted in favor of pragmatic business models, and long-term development and testing.
Let’s continue to look at the top players in the autonomous arena, best poised to still win the race, no matter how many laps it might take.
Baidu made headlines on September 15 for demonstrating it’s Fully Automated Driving capability without a safety driver, through live streaming. This closely follows Baidu’s announced plans to expand its Apollo Go Robotaxi service in Beijing. Apollo’s new AI system can drive without a safety driver present inside, with a 5G Remote Driving Service enabled for remote driving — to assume control in case of any emergency. The hardware will also be installed in Baidu’s fully electric Apollo Go Robotaxi service too.
The Apollo platform has now completed over six million miles of on-road testing, with zero accidents claimed, and over 1,000 hours of cloud-based driving training completed by its remote operators.
Hyundai’s autonomous vehicle project with Aptiv, after being rechristened to Motional in August this year, announced the resumption of its self-driving mobility service with Lyft in Las Vegas on October 22, after pausing its operations due to the pandemic. The BMW 5 series cars had serviced over 3,400 destinations at their peak and given 100,000 passengers rides as of February 2020. But unlike Waymo’s program, Motional’s fleet is not fully autonomous yet, with safety drivers required to be behind the wheel during every trip.
Meanwhile, the Russian Internet giant Yandex too is running its fourth generation, self-driving cars in collaboration with Hyundai in Innopolis, Russia, with plans to add a hundred 2020 Hyundai Sonata’s to its self-driving fleet.
Toyota has created serious waves with the announcement of its 2021 Lexus LS with what it hascalled its most innovative automated driving system ever on the upcoming sedan. The new 2021 LS will feature a lidar-based Level 2 system that automatically enables the vehicle to switch lanes as well as pass other cars on the highway, utilizing its technology dubbed Lexus Teammate.
Lexus is actually calling this technology ‘automated’ instead of autonomous. It is programmed to keep distance from other vehicles, change lanes, outdistance other vehicles on the road and handle lane splitting to keep the car in its own lane.
For years Toyota has been pursuing projects named Guardian, designed to augment and assist a driver’s decision, and Chauffeur, its fully autonomous approach at the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) with a focus on making human driving smarter and safer.
While Mercedes has been launching a slew of uber-futuristic autonomous prototypes at regular intervals, namely the F 015 Luxury in Motion, or the Future Truck 2025, it has finally announced its technological powerhouse — the all-new 2021 Mercedes-Benz S Class.
Touted to have the most computing power than any car ever created, the new S Class comes preloaded with the ability for both Level 3 and Level 4 autonomy, up from the current Level 2, S class on the roads, which can handle lane-centering, lane changing, braking, and accelerating with an alert driver present.
Level 4 ability has been baked into the new S-Class, which can be activated later, when country-wise regulations are in place. For now, it will be restricted to an automated valet parking (AVP) functionality through the Intelligent Park Pilot system, where the driver can tell the car to go park itself via a smartphone app.
The Mercedes offering is a clear response to Audi’s flagship offering — the Level 3 equipped Audi A8. However, due to the lack of clear regulations, Audi has given up on adding its Level 3 autonomous drive-assist system, Traffic Jam Pilot to its cars. The German automaker announced on April 28, that it would no longer add its Traffic Jam Pilot system to the current-generation A8 sedan in Europe or anywhere else in the world.
Traffic Jam Pilot was designed to automatically steer, accelerate, and brake on highways. It was planned for use only on divided highways, in stop-and-go traffic at speeds up to 37 mph. But faced with a lack of clear regulations — for US, the cars were shipped with the sensor suite needed for Traffic Jam Pilot, but without other components, such as steering and brake redundancies. And in Europe, the decision seems to be triggered by liability in case of an accident when engaged, currently lying with the automaker.
The Progress So Far
The autonomous driving industry uses two benchmarks to measure progress — total miles driven, and manual override per 1000 miles. So, the higher the total miles driven is, and the lesser the manual overrides are, the more autonomous a car is. Turns out, the technology is a little more difficult to implement than originally thought. Autonomous cars work on the simple principle of taking information from their surroundings and making judgment calls, same as humans. To do so, machine learning is used to train the car based on millions of miles of data. But to collect this driving data, an imperfect machine has to be deployed on the road, which is potentially a risk to other vehicles and humans.
Well-publicized accidents involving autonomous cars have slowed acceptance and development, and Covid-19 has added further delays to autonomous car development, with ride-sharing industry taking a massive hit. However, the tech is safer and greener than human driving, the cars are a boon for the elderly, the long commuter, and the disabled, and several industries (like cargo transportation, eCommerce, etc.) are banking heavily on automation. It still stands that the first company to break through the true driverless tech will reap riches for their investors and owners alike. For now, we have to contend with driver-assist features currently available that will become integral parts of our future self-driving cars.