July 26, 2021
A Changing Vision for Driverless Vehicles
by Paul Carroll
The vision of driverless robotaxis carrying us everywhere and making deliveries looks like it will have to wait a bit -- but big change is still afoot.
As plans for fully autonomous vehicles continue to get pushed back, the near future is beginning to look like it will revolve around a different acronym: more ADAS, less AV.
Autonomous vehicles, or AVs, will provide many of the technology breakthroughs that allow for advances in ADAS, or advanced driver-assistance systems, which will use a host of new sensors and AI to reduce accidents. But the vision of driverless robotaxis carrying us everywhere and making deliveries looks like it will have to wait a bit, except in carefully circumscribed areas — and maybe even there for a while yet.
The shift to ADAS from full AVs should soften the near-term effects on auto insurers, which have feared a loss of business in a world where individuals aren’t responsible for driving. At the same time, the shift may increase the cost of repairing expensive electronics when accidents occur.
The new focus on ADAS is by no means a statement that the full AV revolution won’t happen. The progress by AVs has been nothing short of astounding since DARPA, a research arm of the Department of Defense, offered a $1 million prize in 2004 in a contest among autonomous vehicles on a 150-mile course in the Mojave Desert. Most of the 15 vehicles chosen to participate were basically golf carts with sensors and computers strapped on to them, and more than half didn’t even make it out of sight of the starting line. The farthest any vehicle went was 7.4 miles. Just 17 years later, we have fleets of sleek-looking vehicles traveling city streets using AI and sensors — albeit still with a safety driver behind the wheel in just about all of them.
Progress will continue, too. A Brookings Institution study found that $80 billion flowed into AV technology investments between 2014 and 2017. That’s just the investments announced publicly and, of course, doesn’t count the prior investments or the money that has flooded into the field since 2017.
The issue hasn’t been that the AV technology doesn’t work — in any given situation, an AV will perform better than the vast majority of human drivers. It’s just that the world around AVs has turned out to be more complex than initial plans allowed for. In particular, we humans do lots of unpredictable things as pedestrians and as drivers — and AVs aren’t allowed to make mistakes.
While we wait for full autonomy, though, plenty of opportunities have opened up to make driving safer, a notion underscored by some recent multibillion-dollar price tags on acquisitions of ADAS companies.
Lidar sensors, governed by always-learning AI, can enhance automatic braking systems — and studies have found that cars are already more than 50% less likely to have a rear-end collision if equipped with such a system. Systems that keep cars centered in lanes will also improve as technology designed for full autonomy is deployed.
Increased communications capabilities designed for AVs will allow for better connections with roads and other infrastructure. When I rented a car last week while on vacation at the Jersey shore, I wasn’t sure what the speed limit was at one point, then realized that it was displayed on my dashboard based on some sort of radio signal from a speed limit sign I’d missed. Cars will also be able to better communicate with each other. If a car slams on its brakes, it will be able to alert the stream of cars behind it so they can instantaneously begin braking, too. Further out, AV technology will even let cars communicate with each other in ways that let them essentially see around corners — even if you can’t see that a car is speeding through a red light and might broadside you, many other cars on the road can, and they’ll be able to alert yours to brake and avoid the danger.
Technology developed for autonomous cars may also find earlier uses in autonomous trucks. Many are looking at having them operate in fully driverless mode on freeways, where vehicle traffic is far more predictable than on city roads and where pedestrians aren’t an issue. Human drivers would be staged at freeway exits, to ferry trucks to and from their final destinations and within cities. Makers of self-driving trucks say they can cut freight costs in half by removing the need for drivers on the freeway portion of long-haul routes.
I remain as optimistic as ever about the outlook for AVs. Since Chunka Mui and I wrote a book on driverless cars in 2013, progress was faster than we expected for a time and now is somewhat slower. As often happens with fundamental innovations like AVs, the development isn’t happening in a straight line. We’re winding up with hybrid forms of the technology in both cars and trucks before we get to the full effects. But we’ll get there.