Most of us are familiar with the concept of autopilot, the self-maneuvering technology that provides relief to pilots by maintaining an aircraft on a preset course. A similar system in road vehicles enables cruise-control. Most modern commercial merchant vessels and tankers are also heavily automated and can transport goods around the world with the help of smaller, less specialized crew members. These are all examples of ways in which transport has already benefitted from some degree of automation, and it is only inevitable that we find ourselves entering an era of autonomous road vehicles.
Autonomous vehicles include self-driving cars and trucks that operate with little or no intervention from humans. While fully autonomous vehicles are still in the experimental stage, partly autonomous driving features are already being introduced in production vehicles. These features include automated braking and self-parking systems.
Numerous advances in technology have made autonomous vehicles a reality, and the development of machine vision has been particularly crucial. It involves the use of multiple sensors to capture images of the environment, which are then processed to extract relevant details, such as road signs and obstacles. 3D cameras enable accurate spatial measurements, while pattern recognition software allows identification of characters like numbers and symbols. Additionally, laser-imaging detection and ranging, or LIDAR, and advanced GPS technologies are being used to allow a vehicle to identify its location, and navigate smoothly along road networks.
A self-driving vehicle is also equipped with artificial intelligence software that integrates data from sensors and machine vision to analyze the next best move. The decisions of the software are further modified based on traffic rules, such as red lights or speed limits. Actuators then receive driving instructions from the control engineering software, and the vehicle accelerates, brakes, or changes direction as needed.
The introduction of automobiles has revolutionized the world in the last century, and autonomous vehicles are expected to yield just as tremendous an impact. One of the major advantages of autonomous vehicles will be in their ability to prevent collisions. Elimination of drivers is expected to greatly reduce the injuries, deaths, and damages that result from driving accidents caused by human error. According to one estimate, self-driving technology can result in a 20 percent overall reduction in road accidents. By 2025, this could potentially save 140,000 lives annually.1
Vehicular automation also has promising implications for fuel economy. The technology behind autonomous vehicles ensures supremely precise maneuvering that allows cars in a lane to safely drive within a narrow distance of each other. Such streamlined vehicles experience lower aerodynamic drag, with a consequent reduction in fuel consumption.2 Moreover, autonomous vehicles have acceleration and braking systems that are efficiently operated by the computer, further reducing fuel consumption. Automobiles are a notorious source of pollution; with the improved fuel economy of self-driven cars, it is estimated that C02 emission could be reduced by up to 100 million tons annually.1
The trucking industry could also benefit from automated vehicles. Self-driving truck convoys would theoretically be able to make long haul trips without having to stop for the needs of a human driver. An autonomous trucking system has already been successfully tested by a Japanese research organization. The system consists of several radar-technology equipped trucks that are led by a single driver from the front. Similarly, the mining giant Rio Tinto has used partially autonomous trucks that stay on a predefined route and are able to unload cargo without personnel.
Fully autonomous cars are still in the testing stage and have been developed by several major automakers. Audi has produced a self-parking car that can also start and stop itself in heavy traffic.3 Cadillac has built cars with advanced cruise-control systems that provide steering assistance. Mercedes-Benz is introducing the 2014 S-class that comes with multiple advanced autonomous driving features. The car can maintain speed and distance from other vehicles, and also has a lane-keeping system.4
If the full potential of autonomic vehicles is to be realized in the future, governments will have to be decisive about supporting the technology. Automakers are already testing fully autonomous cars that are likely to become commercially available within a few years. Their ultimate appearance on the roads, however, will be dependent upon government regulations. New laws will have to be established to determine legal responsibilities, and roads may require investments to optimize them for self-driving vehicles.
Finally, as with any computerized machine, autonomous vehicles would be potential targets for hackers. Criminals gaining access to the automated navigation systems could inflict devastating harm, making it crucial for strong cyber security systems to be established before allowing self-driven transportation on the road.
McKinsey Global Institute, Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy, May 2013
Kevin Bullis, How vehicle automation will cut fuel consumption, MIT Technology Review, October 24, 2011.
Angus MacKenzie, The future is here: Piloted driving in Audi’s autonomous A6, MotorTrend, January 2013.
Andrew English, New car tech: 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-class, Road & Track, November 2012.