Fasten your seatbelts for Autonomous Vehicles

Azad Kamrul | Published: August 07, 2018 20:49:50 | Updated: August 31, 2018 21:35:27

While having a cup of coffee after my tour at BMW Welt in Munich, Germany, this year in January, I was imagining the future of a car, which will not require me to control it physically. But I can talk to it through my smartphone or locate its position. This will be a car that can receive a text message and plan journey to my desired destination, drop me off at my workplace and then come back home on its own. Or a car that can assure me by sending notifications after my kids are picked up from school and dropped at home safely. Such a time is not far away when our smart devices will be connected with smart, autonomous cars.

Autonomous Vehicle (AV) is a buzzword in the tech landscape and it has been the centre of attention and race among automakers. This autonomous driving technology industry is estimated to be worth GBP 900 billion globally by 2025 and is currently growing at the pace of 16 per cent a year.

So what is an AV and how does it work? Simply, an AV, known also as the driverless or self-driving car, is a vehicle that is capable of moving from one place to another without need of human intervention. AVs are fully loaded with a bunch of strong sensors, cameras, LIDAR (a constantly spinning sensor on the roof of the car to generate a 360-degree image of the surrounding environment), various radars and a central computer system to analyse data from sensors to assess the situation and actuate accordingly.

Factors pushing the development of Autonomous Vehicle (AV) are road safety, increase in productivity, efficiency in mobility, lower cost of car maintenance and environmental benefits.

Now the question is when are the AVs hitting our roads? Tech giant Elon Musk famously predicted that we would be sleeping on the wheel by 2019. But Christian Wolmar, an award-winning author, and transport specialist said 'we are talking about a technology that will never happen'.

So is it a hype or reality? In order to answer this question, first, we need to see where we are in the timeline to achieve this landmark. 

The transition from where we are today to achieve fully autonomous vehicle is a gradual process ranging from Level 0 to 5 as classified by the Society of Automotive Engineers and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the US. 

LEVEL 0: the current state of our vehicles that can do nothing and the entire functionalities e. g. steering, accelerating, and braking etc are solely the responsibility of the driver. 

Level 1: AVs are high-end cars that are fitted with some safety mechanisms like a rear-pointing camera for Lane Departure Warning (LDW), Forward Collision Warning (FCW) etc to alert the driver in difficult situations. But the decisions will still be made by the driver.

Level 2: AVs are loaded with one or more safety mechanisms that can intervene in certain conditions like Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) etc.

Level 3: AVs are equipped to take longer actions on behalf of the driver. But the driver has to be ready to take control at any point if the autonomous functions are falter.

Level 4: AVs can operate without any intervention of the driver in some conditions, some of the times. But the vehicle is not in charge in case of all scenarios.

Level 5: AVs are fully autonomous with technological capabilities to apply whole machine learning (ML) ecosystem. Artificial intelligence (AI) for the AVs will be able to communicate 'car-to-car and car-to-infrastructure' and operate anywhere in any weather conditions such as urban or mountain, hard rain or snow, wooden or concrete tarmac.  They may or may not have redundant controls but they are not usually intended to be driven by a human driver at this level.

Looking at the above stages we understand that the level 5 AVs are still years away from widespread use. Although the cars of Waymo, Google's driverless car project, have driven 4 million public-road miles autonomously, Sacha Arnoud, director of the engineering team at Waymo, says it took 10 per cent of the time to complete the first 90 per cent of the technology and they need 10 times more effort to finish the remaining 10 per cent.

An autonomous transport in the sky or underwater is much less complex and safer than the roads where the presence of other human drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, objects and various unpredictable factors represent a significant challenge to the technology.

The computer system fitted in the AVs needs to be robust enough to interpret data inputs from multiple sensors and direct the car's action within a split second. But this is not all about achieving technological capabilities. Rather there are other critical factors that need to be addressed before we experience AVs such as legal issues to decide who will be responsible if an AV gets in an accident. Is it the 'driver', automaker of the vehicle or the operator of the ride-sharing service? Is there any need to have a driving license to operate an AV?

Another ethical concern surrounding this technology is that should the AV protect those inside the car or those outside, during an unavoidable collision. Which programme will kick in, in a situation either to drive into a crowd or hit the wall at full speed? If the car kills the owner or passenger to save others then people will be less interested to buy it. But whether the solution is right or wrong, these issues need to be resolved and hard-coded into the car's logic before the arrival of the AVs.

But the biggest barrier for the AVs is the public's acceptance as the surveys conducted so far shows that the majority of the people are not yet confident on AVs. So in order for this revolutionary technology to propel the revolution in the mindset of the people it is essential to believe that the human drivers are less safe than the AVs.

Many of the high-end cars today are semi-autonomous equipped with Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) and more usage of these cars will shift us towards the adoption of full AVs. Moreover comfort, safety, rapidly changing consumer behaviour, technological advancement, and on-demand mobility will also pave the way for AVs in the near future.

ABM Kamrul Huda Azad is the CEO of B A Exchange UK Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary of Bank Asia Ltd.



Share if you like