autonomous vehicle

An autonomous vehicle or driverless car can sense its environment and drive/navigate without human interference.

What is an autonomous vehicle?

Self-driving cars combine sensors to anticipate and create their surroundings, such as radar, lidar, GPS and odometry. The system interprets information to identify navigation paths, obstacles and read signage.


Definition of an autonomous vehicle

Terminology varies in the self-driving car industry and organisations have defined the vocabulary.


History of autonomous vehicles (self-driving cars)

Automated driving systems (ADS) have been tested since the 1920s. A semi-automated car was developed in 1977, by Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering Laboratory, which used pre-marked streets interpreted by two cameras on the vehicle. It reached speeds of19 mph.

An autonomous car appeared in the 1980s, with Carnegie Mellon University’s Navlaband ALVprojects. By 1985, the ALV had demonstrated self-driving speeds on two-lane roads of 19 mph, with obstacle avoidance added in 1986. A major milestone was achieved in 1995, with CMU’s NavLab 5 completing the first autonomous coast-to-coast drive of the United States. Automated vehicle research in the United States was primarily funded by DARPA, the US Army, and the US Navy, yielding advances in speeds, controls, and sensor systems.

Navlab’s record achievement stood unmatched for two decades until 2015, when Delphi improved it by piloting an Audi, augmented with Delphi technology, over 3,400 mi through 15 states while remaining in self-driving mode 99% of the time. In 2015, the US states of Nevada, Florida, California, Virginia, and Michigan, together with Washington, DC, allowed the testing of automated cars on public roads. From 2016 to 2018, the European Commission funded an innovation strategy development for connected and automated driving through the Coordination Actions CARTRE and SCOUT.

In November 2017, Waymo announced that it had begun testing driverless cars without a safety driver in the driver position; however, there was still an employee in the car. In December 2018, Waymo was the first to commercialise a fully autonomous taxi service in the US, in Phoenix, Arizona. Waymo launched a geo-fenced driverless ride hailing service in Phoenix. The cars are being monitored in real-time by a team of remote engineers, and there are cases where the remote engineers need to intervene.

In March 2019, ahead of the autonomous racing series Roborace, Robocar set the Guinness World Record for being the fastest autonomous car in the world, reaching 175.49 mph. On March 5, 2021, Honda began leasing in Japan a limited edition of 100 Legend Hybrid EX sedans equipped with the newly approved Level 3 automated driving equipment which had been granted the safety certification by Japanese government, legally allowing drivers to take their eyes off the road.

Levels and classification of autonomous vehicle (self-driving cars)

  • Lv 0: The automated system issues warnings but has no vehicle control.
  • Lv 1: The driver and system share control. The driver controls steering and the system controls Cruise Control. Parking Assistance allows steering while speed is under manual control. Lane Keeping Assistance (LKA) Type II is a further example of Level 1 self-driving. Automatic emergency braking alerts the driver to a crash and permits full braking capacity.
  • Lv2: The automated system takes full control of the vehicle: accelerating, braking, and steering. The driver must be prepared to intervene immediately. Contact between hand and wheel is often mandatory.
  • Lv 3: The driver can safely turn their attention off. The vehicle will handle situations that call for an immediate response, like emergency braking. The driver must still be prepared to intervene within some limited time, specified by the manufacturer. The automated system is effectively a co-driver that will alert you in when it is your turn to drive.
  • Lv 4: The driver may safely go to sleep. Self-driving is supported in limited areas or under special circumstances. The vehicle must be able to safely abort the journey. An automated taxi would fill this remit.
  • Lv 5: No human intervention is required at all. An example would be a robotic vehicle that works on all kinds of surfaces, globally. Potentially this could be the future of delivery vehicles.


Hybrid Navigation Systems for autonomous vehicles

There are different systems like car navigation system, the environment perception, the laser perception, the radar perception, the visual perception and the vehicle control method.

The challenge is producing control systems capable of analysing sensory data to perceive and understand the road ahead. Modern self-driving cars generally use Bayesian simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM) algorithms. Waymo has developed (DATMO), which sees cars and pedestrians. Simpler systems may use roadside real-time locating system (RTLS). Typical sensors include lidar, stereo vision, GPS and IMU.

Driverless vehicles require some form of machine vision. Automated cars are being developed with deep neural networks, in which neurons are simulated from the environment that activate the network.The neural network depends on an extensive amount of data extracted from real-life driving scenarios, enabling the neural network to learn. In May 2018 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had built an automated car that can navigate unmapped roads. Researchers developed a new system, called MapLite, which allows self-driving cars to drive on roads that they have never been on before. The system combines the GPS position of the vehicle, a sparse topological map such as OpenStreetMap, and a series of sensors that observe the road.


Limitations and disadvantages

The benefits could be limited by challenges such as disputes over liability, resistance by individuals to forfeiting control of their cars, concerns about safety, and the implementation of a legal framework. Other obstacles could include de-skilling and lower levels of driver experience for dealing with potentially dangerous situations, ethical problems where an automated vehicle’s software is forced during an unavoidable crash to choose between multiple harmful courses of action. Concerns about the potential for more intrusive mass surveillance, association and travel as a result of police and intelligence agency access.

Technological obstacles to overcome:

  • Artificial Intelligence is still not able to function properly in chaotic environments.
  • A car’s computer could potentially be compromised or hacked intentionally. The network could also be compromised.
  • Susceptibility of the car’s sensing to types of weather.
  • Competition for the radio spectrum desired for the car’s communication.
  • Road infrastructure will need to advance for automated cars to function.

Social challenges include:

  • Uncertainty about potential future regulation.
  • Employment – Companies working on the technology have an increasing recruitment problem in that the available talent pool has not grown with demand. Industry is steadily increasing freely available information sources, such as code, datasets and glossaries to widen the recruitment pool.


Autonomous vehicles pros and cons

Automated vehicles to the mass market is inevitable but a range of ethical issues have not been fully addressed.

  • The moral, financial, and criminal responsibility for crashes and breaches of law
  • The decisions a car is to make right before a potentially fatal crash
  • Privacy issues and data dissemination
  • Unemployment due to driver substitution
  • Exposure to hacking and malware
  • Power in the hands of a few global enterprises capable of consolidating AI capacity

There are different opinions on who should be held liable in case of a crash. The car manufacturers are responsible for crashes that are due to a technical malfunction. It could encourage manufacturers to innovate and heavily invest into fixes, due to financial consequences. However, there is a view that those owning the vehicle should be responsible since they know the risks. Other possible parties that can be held responsible in case of a technical failure include software engineers that programmed the code for the automated operation of the vehicles.

How should automated vehicles be programmed to behave in an emergency which will involve pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers. When a self-driving car is in following scenario: it’s driving with passengers and suddenly a person appears in its way. The car has to decide between the two options, either to run the person over or to avoid hitting the person by swerving into a wall or another car, killing the passengers and potentially the passengers in the other vehicle too. What moral basis would be used by an automated vehicle to make decisions and how could those be translated into software. Researchers have suggested following deontology and utilitarianism. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are a typical example of deontological ethics. This suggests that a car needs to follow strict written-out rules. Utilitarianism suggests the idea that any decision must be made based on the goal to maximise utility. Additional frameworks e.g. relativism, absolutism, and pluralism, are also being explored. Also, how the relevant weightings in human value terms should be given to all the other humans involved. These practical difficulties present as much of a challenge as the theoretical abstractions.

Privacy-related issues arise mainly from the interconnectivity of automated cars. This information gathering ranges from tracking of the routes taken, voice recording and video recording. The data and communications infrastructure needed to support these vehicles may also be capable of surveillance, especially if coupled to other data sets and advanced analytics.

The implementation of automated vehicles to the mass market might cost up to 5 million jobs in the US e.g. drivers of taxis, buses, vans, trucks, and e-hailing vehicles. Many industries, such as the auto insurance industry are indirectly affected. India and China have placed bans on automated cars with the former citing protection of jobs.

Self-driving car economy in UK

The economic value of self-driving vehicles in the UK is being speculated; the connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) market could be worth over £40 billion by 2035. Researchers at the Connected Places Catapult, Element Energy and Cambridge Econometrics indicated that by 2035, 40% of new UK car sales could have self-driving capabilities. Potentially, this could manifest 40,000 skilled jobs, linked to the UK government’s commitment to a green future.

By 2021, the UK Government has already invested £200 million into CAV research and development (R&D), helping British start-ups develop their tech for use both in the UK and internationally.


Applications for autonomous vehicles

Otto and Starsky Robotics have focused on trucks. Automation is important due to the improved safety and also to the ability of fuel savings through platooning. Autonomous vans are being used by Ocado.

Transport systems – automated buses

China trialed the first automated public bus in Henan province in 2015. Baidu and King Long produce automated minibus, excluding a driving seat. Approximately 100 vehicles produced, 2018 will be the first year with commercial automated bus services.

In Europe, cities are trialing transport systems for automated cars. Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain have allowed public testing in traffic. In 2015, the UK launched public trials of the LUTZ Pathfinder automated pod in Milton Keynes. PSA Peugeot-Citroen tested in real conditions in the Paris.


Self-driving car accidents and incidents

In 2015, Tesla rolled out their Autopilot capability. In 2016, Tesla rolled out version 7.1, over-the-air update, adding the new summon feature that allows cars to retrieve or self-park at parking locations. As of November 2020, Tesla’s automated driving features is currently classified as a Level 2 driver assistance system.

On 20 January 2016, the first of five known fatal crashes of a Tesla with Autopilot occurred in China. Tesla alleged that the vehicle was badly damaged from the impact that their recorder was not able to conclusively prove that the car had been on Autopilot. An alternative allegation speculated that the car failed to take any evasive actions at the time. In 2018, in a subsequent civil suit between the father of the driver killed in Florida and Tesla, leading to Tesla not denying that the car had been on Autopilot at the time of the accident.

The second known fatal accident resulted in the occupant being killed in a crash with an 18-wheel tractor-trailer. According to NHTSA, preliminary reports indicate the crash occurred when the tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the Tesla at an intersection on a non-controlled access highway, and the car failed to apply the brakes.

Tesla claimed that this was Tesla’s first known autopilot death in over 130 million miles driven by its customers with Autopilot engaged. According to Tesla there is a fatality every 94 million miles. However, this number also includes fatalities of the crashes, for instance, of motorcycle drivers with pedestrians.


Energy and environmental impacts

Vehicle automation can improve fuel economy of the car by optimising the drive cycle, as well as increasing congested traffic speeds. Additionally, self-driving cars will be able to accelerate and brake more efficiently, meaning higher fuel economy from reducing wasted energy. It is expected that convenience of the automated vehicles encourages the consumers to travel more, and this induced demand may partially or fully offset the fuel efficiency improvement brought by automation.

By reducing the labour and other costs of mobility as a service, automated cars could reduce the number of cars that are individually owned, replaced by taxi/pooling and other car-sharing services.

The lack of stressful driving, more productive time during the trip, and the potential savings in travel time and cost could become an incentive to live far away from cities, where housing is cheaper. There is also the risk that traffic congestion might increase. Appropriate public policies and regulations, such as zoning, pricing, and urban design are required to avoid the negative impacts.

Since many autonomous vehicles are going to rely on electricity to operate, the demand for lithium batteries increases. Similarly, radar, sensors, lidar, and high-speed internet connectivity require higher auxiliary power from vehicles, which manifests as greater power draw from batteries. This transition phase of oil to electricity allows companies to explore whether there are business opportunities. In 2020, Mohan, Sripad, Vaishnav & Viswanathan at Carnegie Mellon University found that the electricity consumption of all the automation technology, including sensors, computation, internet access as well as the increased drag from sensors causes up to a 15% impact on the range of an automated electric vehicle, therefore, implying that the larger battery requirement might not be as large as previously assumed.


Self driving car examples  – Waymo

Waymo is Google’s self-driving car effort, previously called Project Chauffeur. The AI technology is not in a position to be rolled out. The combination of all the updated tech like lidar and radar and the sophistication of contemporary deep learning models, the systems cannot handle unknown conditions well as humans. They make consequential mistakes when anomalies occur, which haven’t been filtered through their learning experience.

Thus, the outcome is that autonomy is not ready to be rolled out. testing continues through Waymo One, the robo-taxi service, available in parts of Phoenix. The scale to more crowded urban areas though remains in the distance.

Other manufacturers exploring this domain include;

  • Arity
  • WiTricity
  • Unity Technologies
  • Ouster
  • Cruise
  • Waymo
  • Voyage
  • Swift Navigation



Recent category posts


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