A lot of tweets and articles regarding autonomous cars on the internet would have you believe that driverless cars are just around the corner. While that is not the case, many firms around the world are hard at work to bring the technology to the streets. Some are way ahead in their programs, while some are just taking baby steps towards the goal.
The fact of the matter is that self-driving cars are at least a decade away from full functionality. However, they have already opened up a lot of possibilities for application in various strategic fields in the world.
Apple Inc. was one of the early movers in the AV arena with its Titan project. It has been shelved indefinitely, for now.
Despite Elon Musk’s bold claim that Tesla will have “full self-driving” capability by the end of 2020, there are a lot of hurdles steering the technology away from real-world application. The world is too diverse and unpredictable, the robots are too expensive and temperamental to navigate cars safely around situations that human drivers would know how to handle.
John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo (Google’s autonomous car development department), said last year that autonomy will always have some constraints. This has led AV firms around the world to develop solutions for operational design domains. Until the driverless car is perfectly safe for public roads, it will be pressed into service to handle specific tasks.
Potential Applications of Driverless Cars
AVs are increasingly being favoured as last-mile transport solutions. Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City has inducted NAVYA Autonom cabs for seamless urban mobility. Research is also being put in to commence last-mile shuttle systems around university campuses. Such vehicles can be used in large townships as well as senior living facilities. Toward this end, companies based in Florida and California are already working upon developing driverless shuttles.
Robotaxis are definitely the future, albeit at the expense of thousands of human drivers losing their jobs. Waymo, Aptiv, Ford Argo AI, GM Cruise, Uber- these are some of the companies in a race to corner this area of the autonomous car applications.
Uber had to suspend testing of its autonomous taxis after one of them struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona.
Apart from urban applications, autonomous technology can best serve the purposes of agriculture and mining. Few people around, repetitive tasks, and relatively less valuable property to run into means that robots are best suited for this particular job. This technology is already in commercial operation, with firms like Caterpillar, CNH, John Deere, and Volvo coming up with new designs and tech to address the needs of agriculture and mining.
Amazon has already started local delivery of products using drones, which are effectively autonomous vehicles. Efforts are being made to induct autonomy into long-distance haulers like trucks. Highways are relatively safer environments than urban streets, making them an ideal playground for robots.
In short, driverless vehicle technology has immense potential applications that can ease the lives of humans while also reducing impact upon the earth.
Despite clocking 16 million kilometres (10 million miles) of testing, Waymo concludes the data gathered is simply not enough to ascertain the safety of AVs.
Autonomous cars are at least a decade away. But the problems associated with such a technology need to be identified and resolved at the earliest to ensure a smooth introduction of AVs worldwide.
Autonomous Cars Face Challenges Too
Of course, the set of challenges faced by autonomous cars is unique to their area of applications. In an urban scenario, were the LIDAR setup to go dark, you are left with a chunk of metal that you can’t drive. Luging your own luggage a couple of kilometres is a task easier borne by robots.
Defined spaces like universities, residential neighbourhoods aren’t that difficult to introduce autonomous vehicles. However, youngsters might decide to play pranks on the cars or shuttles, in the process hurting the network of autonomy. This is a very real concern, stopping many companies from introducing this technology in universities.
As for robotaxis, once a multitude of drivers are left without a job, they are sure to raise an outcry against autonomy. Fortunately, commercial robotaxis are at least a decade away, meaning we have time to address the potential future problem.
Delivery drones are perhaps the biggest security concerns. Any online entity can be hacked. A drone is subject to the commands of its home firm, or its new master who has just hacked and taken over the controls of the machine. Moving contraband (and the occasional corpse) with hacked drones could add to the headache of law enforcers.
Since the threats and challenges are very real, it is perhaps best to figure out what could go wrong with autonomous vehicles and address the issue first, then introduce these futuristic machines in a public scenario. With companies like Waymo, Amazon, Kodiak Robotics, and more such stalwarts actively pursuing the AV tech, the day is not far away when we will begin looking at cars from a different perspective.