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Self-Driving Cars – Myth or Reality?

When we speak of autonomous or self-driving cars, we still envision a driver seated and ready to take control of the vehicle if needed. But that isn’t a truly autonomous situation. While automobile manufacturers have been working on creating a fully automated car since the 1920s, promising progress was made in the 1980s with Carnegie Mellon’s NAVLAB and ALV. Yet, the dependence on a human driver is strong.

Back in 1885, Karl Benz developed the first practical motorcar called the Benz Patent-Motorwagen. On its first public demonstration, the motorcar crashed into a wall owing to its unreliable control. Since then, the automobile industry has come a long way. Modern day vehicles are extremely reliable, sturdy and safe. However, the driver is still like a bug that needs fixing. In the US alone, around 35,000 people died in road accidents in 2015; and a majority fault can be traced to human error.

The quest to fix this bug started in 1926 when the streets of Milwaukee witnessed the rallying of the first remotely controlled car, Phantom Auto. In the 1940s, Norman Bel Geddes envisioned in his book Magic Motorways a future where drivers will be removed from the process of driving. Bel Geddes, very optimistically, hoped that such driverless cars will be a reality 20 years later. However, it’s nearly eight decades since his vision and a fully autonomous commercial driverless car is yet to see the light of day.

Apart from NAVLAB and ALV, efforts were being made by Bundeswehr University Munich in 1987 to create a self-sufficient car under the Eureka Prometheus Project. Anchored by Eric Dickmanns in collaboration with Mercedes-Benz. This vehicle ran 620 miles in 1994, whereas its older counterpart NAVLAB completed a 3,100 miles cross-country journey in 1995. However, both projects only produced semi-autonomous cars which required a certain level of human intervention.

In 2014, SAE, an automotive standardization body published its six level classification (Level 0 to Level 5) ranging from none (Level 0) to fully autonomous (level 5) vehicles. The classification was later adopted by the U.S. government. The current phase of autonomous cars lie at level 2 or level 3, where the driver must be prepared to take control of the vehicle. This defeats the purpose of an autonomous vehicle as it is meant to help make driving safer and reduce the number of road accidents.

At present, many major automotive manufactures including General Motors, Ford, Daimler, Volkswagen, Audi, Nissan, Toyota, BMW and Volvo are working on driverless car systems. Competing with them are new entrants from Silicon Valley like Google (with its newly carved out sibling Waymo), Apple, Tesla and Uber.

Leveraging patented technology

Google leads the industry with around 150 patent families centered on driverless technology since 2005. Among automakers, Toyota has around 140 patent families, followed by Daimler and Robert Bosch with over 100 filings each. Although Silicon Valley companies are aggressively researching driverless car technology, automakers owns larger patent portfolios. Google is the only technology company that features in the list of the top 10 assignees. The number of patent filings by Uber merely crosses the two-digit mark.

Uber acquired Otto in June 2016 for its LiDAR technology. Vast data of driving statistics accessible to Uber through its crowd sourced cab service teamed with Otto’s technology is expected to quickly improve Uber’s self-driving and navigating capability. The company also owns a few patents related to remote guidance of autonomous vehicles and automatic cruise control. Recently, General Motors collaborated with Lyft and Daimler joined hands with Uber to intensify research in self-driving cars. Industry experts believe that such alliances between automakers and tech companies with their non-duplicative and complimentary technology will be crucial for positive growth in self-driving cars.

The elephant in the room now is – when will fully driverless cars be commercially available? Google has been testing its prototypes since 2009. By March 2015, Google’s Waymo cars completed over 300,000 autonomous-driving miles (500,000 km) accident-free. Its test cars have been involved in 14 collisions, of which 13 times it was related to human error. Despite this high level of autonomous success, Google hasn’t launched a single vehicle in the market.

Google believes there is no relation between “driver assistance” systems and “self-driving” cars. Unlike Tesla, it does not consider in commercializing a driver assistance system and gradually improving upon it. Google’s recent Waymo models do not even have a steering wheel. The delay in launching the Waymo can be attributed to Larry Page’s insistence that either the company launches a fully autonomous car or nothing at all. Its current prototype primarily relies on pre-programmed route data. It does not obey temporary traffic lights and human signals. In unmapped intersections, it sometimes reverts to an extremely slow speed. Google expects to fix these issues by 2020.

On the other hand, Tesla says that all its current car models support the hardware necessary for full automation, and by the end of 2017 its AutoPilot will be smart enough to function completely autonomously.

Uber maintains a fleet of modified Volvo trucks in Pittsburg which work autonomously on highways under the supervision of a human driver. It predicts to develop a ready-for-the-road fully autonomous car in 2021. Others like Ford and BMW also mark 2021 as the year of autonomous cars. Even if these companies achieve their proposed timelines, there are still legal hurdles which will prevent them from launching their much coveted vehicles.

At present, many countries around the world do not allow autonomous vehicles to be tested on public roads. Autonomous vehicle is one domain where the law is created and enforced after the technology develops. Most road safety laws today require a “driver” entity to be present within a vehicle. There is always a legal question about who takes the responsibility in case of a crash? Who pays for the damages? An accident involving an autonomous car can no longer be considered a “criminal” offence with a missing “driver” entity. A completely autonomous system will also be vulnerable to cyber security threats.

Despite these challenges, the auto industry is positive that autonomous cars are indeed the next big thing. Only time can tell whether we will see real self-driving cars running on the road in the near future or far. Until then, we will have to be compensated by the kind of self-driving cars luxury car maker Rolls-Royce’s CEO, Torsten Muller-Otvos, claims (jokingly) to have invented 111 years ago – the ones with chauffeurs!