No driver necessary
self-driving vehicle project sponsors aim to make road accidents anachronistic -- after they convince consumers the technology is safe
A Google self-driving car maneuvers the streets of Washington, D.C.
PHOTO BY KAREN BLEIER/AFP/GETTYIMAGES
Percent of U.S. road collisions involving human error
Annual damage and health costs that self-driving cars can prevent in the U.S.
Projected worth of autonomous vehicle industry by 2030
The potential advantages of self-driving vehicles are massive. With more than 90 percent of U.S. road collisions involving human error, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, they could save tens of thousands of lives annually.
By saving lives, self-driving cars could also save a great deal of money. In the United States alone, they could prevent US$190 billion in annual damage and health costs, according to McKinsey, which sees mass adoption of self-driving cars in just 15 years’ time. With the autonomous vehicle industry expected to be worth US$87 billion by 2030, according to Lux Research, they could also prove highly lucrative to organizations that dominate the budding market.
So driverless-vehicle projects have quickly sprouted across the auto and tech industries. Most carmakers plan to have partially self-driving cars in their showrooms by 2020, with fully autonomous vehicles available by 2025, The Toronto Star reported in March.
“Piloted driving is one of the most important development fields at Audi,” Ulrich Hackenberg, Audi's development chief, told Bloomberg News. “It's key on the way toward accident-free driving.”
Last year, Mercedes-Benz completed its Future Truck 2025 prototype project. The vehicle's cameras, sensors and radar systems maintain lane position, track distance from other vehicles and monitor surroundings—turning the truck driver into a “transport manager,” according to Mercedes.
“We're using assistance systems that already exist, as well as next-generation sensor technologies whose reliability we're extensively testing.”
—Georg Stefan Hagemann, Daimler Trucks, Stuttgart, Germany
Auto giants such as Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Nissan, as well as tech titans such as Google and Uber, are all pursuing projects to develop self-driving car prototypes. Google has contracted Roush Enterprises of Detroit, Michigan, USA to build 150 self-driving car prototypes. The company plans to complete a self-driving vehicle by 2020, Chris Urmson, the head of Google's autonomous-vehicle project, told The Wall Street Journal.
Yet these projects can only realize the benefit of saved lives and costs if their project teams can successfully demonstrate to the end user that the technology is both functional and safe. Neither carmakers nor tech companies can achieve that alone, so they're partnering with research organizations working on related technology.
Mercedes-Benz's Future Truck 2025 prototype project
PHOTO COURTESY OF DAIMLER
To develop its self-driving taxi fleet, Uber, whose online platform connects drivers to passengers, has hired more than 50 senior scientists from Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute and the National Robotics Engineering Center. In January 2015, Nissan North America announced a five-year autonomous car development project in partnership with NASA, a PMI Global Executive Council member. The space agency helped create the remotely controlled Mars rover robots.
“We're trying to see how the technology and techniques we have developed over time can be applied to self-driving cars here on Earth,” says Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, USA. “From NASA's perspective, we're interested in gaining knowledge that may impact the way NASA carries out future space projects.”
With the Nissan-NASA proof-of-concept project, the team will take software that's been developed for space rovers and determine how to apply it to self-driving cars. “We rely on robots to use onboard sensors to look at the world around them and software to make decisions on how to move from point A to point B,” Mr. Fong says. “That's very similar to the way companies developing these cars use onboard sensors to look at the world and software to make decisions about where to steer.”
Because consumers won't buy driverless vehicles until they believe they're safe, projects such as the Nissan-NASA initiative must engage in robust testing. “NASA has a very safety-driven culture,” Mr. Fong says. “So we make sure the software is well tested and well understood in terms of its performance limits and reliability.”
The Nissan-NASA project's testing phase, expected to begin at the end of 2015, will involve moving autonomous vehicles outfitted with cameras, lasers, scanners and radar systems around the Ames Research Center site. It has a wide variety of terrains ranging from rural roads to urban streets.
Such tests, says Mr. Fong, will help the project team determine “what's needed to turn the car of today into the self-driving car of tomorrow.”
A Four-Wheel Disruption
While self-driving cars may sound like a distant promise of the far-off future, the technology behind them exists in the here and now, according to Morgan Stanley's research division. The project leader of the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 agrees.
“We're using assistance systems that already exist, as well as next-generation sensor technologies whose reliability we're extensively testing,” says Georg Stefan Hagemann, senior manager advanced engineering, Daimler Trucks, Stuttgart, Germany.
Still, to successfully produce a commercial vehicle that “ensures maximum road traffic safety,” Mr. Hagemann says, his team has to overcome the technological hurdle of linking all the assistance systems together so they react correctly to different situations, especially unfamiliar ones.
As with the Nissan-NASA project, the Daimler team sees the testing phase as paramount for establishing the project's safety. “Production requires, above all, extensive safeguarding measures, including testing over several million kilometers,” Mr. Hagemann says of the Future Truck 2025. As its name indicates, the vehicle is scheduled to be on the market (initially for use on major highways only) by 2025.
If successful, such initiatives could revolutionize the transportation industry, he adds. “Goods traffic in the future will be safer, more efficient and more connected as a result.” —Novid Parsi
“Production requires, above all, extensive safeguarding measures, including testing over several million kilometers.”
—Georg Stefan Hagemann
PM NETWORK AUGUST 2015 WWW.PMI.ORG
AUGUST 2015 PM NETWORK