On the crowded streets of Tokyo, Nissan Motor has just shown us a prototype Infiniti Q50 sedan loaded with the latest version of ProPILOT Technology. It’s a preview of the real-world version of ProPILOT promised for 2020.
Dial up a destination in the navigation system, and ProPILOT will drive you there, all by itself. Clogged city streets, wide-open highways? No matter. That’s Nissan’s promise.
What makes this possible? The hardware includes a staggering array of sonars, cameras, millimeter-wave radars and laser scanners. They feed real-time information into a computer brain loaded with complicated algorithms designed to sort out a massive pile of non-stop data. ProPILOT speedily and continuously processes the data, makes non-stop decisions and spits out a self-driven route on a high-definition map – a route that can change instantly based on road conditions, weather, traffic patterns, pedestrians and any manner of other factors.
Nissan – like everyone else working on self-driving technology – promises robocars that deliver peace of mind and convenience. It’ll be safe. It’ll be seamless. You’ll love it!
Toyota Motor’s Lexus division is among the many making such claims. A new concept luxury sedan called the LS+ Concept offers a vision automated driving technologies and artificial intelligence that will be available as early as 2020.
Lexus says a strength of its approach is artificial intelligence (AI) that communicates with a data centre. The car’s AI learns from “big data, including information on roads and surrounding areas” to ensure “a high level of automated driving.”
Nissan and Toyota are among the horde of automakers and suppliers who are aggressively promoting the inevitability of self-driving cars. It’s not about if, but when.
They all argue that self-driving cars will make for safer roads, and an end to snarled traffic. Robocars will free commuters of the stop-and-go grind and allow long-distance drivers to sleep safely behind the wheel – if there even is a wheel in the cars of the future.
REGULATORS ON BOARD
The powerful U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the key regulator in all this, has asked automakers and technology companies to identify “any unnecessary regulatory barriers to automated safety technologies.”
NHTSA, it seems, wants to clear the path for self-driving cars. And given the official Canadian Government policy is to harmonize regulations as much as possible with the U.S., self-driving cars are coming to Canada very soon, too.
THE RACE IS ON
Which of course is great news for Infiniti’s parent, Nissan Motor, as well as the very long list of carmakers and suppliers racing to make drivers redundant. Takao Asami, Nissan’s senior vice president of research and advanced engineering, is one of many making bold pronouncements.
“Today’s demonstration is another example of our successful work toward creating an autonomous driving future for all,” he said of the Q50 prototype on Tokyo’s streets.
General Motors, for its part, says it is a world leader in self-driving technology – if not THE world leader. CEO Mary Barra has not been shy about touting the company’s technological achievements.
“GM and Cruise Automation recently deployed our latest generation self-driving electric test vehicle,” Barra said on a conference call. “We believe it will meet the redundancy and safety requirements necessary to operate without a driver.”
Cruise Automation plans to make a major announcement in this area on Nov. 28, in fact, further underscoring the leadership position GM continues to tout. GM has a fleet of Chevrolet Bolt EVs (electric vehicles) testing its self-driving technology on the streets of San Francisco. All this has not been missed.
“We think GM’s proactive approach is allowing the company to move faster than most peers, with in-house (intellectual property) related to electric drivetrains, shared vehicle platforms, and autonomous vehicle hardware/software,” Piper Jaffray analyst Alexander Potter says in a recent note.
GM, Nissan and others are part of a crowded field that is working to make autonomous vehicles a reality, and soon. The autonomous vehicle industry is highly competitive and shockingly interconnected. In California’s high-tech hotbed, Silicon Valley, more than 40 companies are grinding through the challenges facing self-driving cars and their adoption.
These companies include Intel, Nvidia, Waymo, Tesla, Uber Technologies and even Samsung. All and more have secured permits from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test self-driving cars on public roads.
THE GLOBAL RACE TO AUTONOMY
This is a global race, not one confined to the San Francisco Bay Area, either.
A survey from the Cologne Institute for Economic Research found that German car manufacturers and supplier firms had filed way more patents for self-driving cars than most other global automotive companies. From 2010 to 2017 a total of 5,839 autonomous-driving patents were filed by carmakers and suppliers. Fifty-two per cent of globally registered patents for autonomous driving came from German companies.
Still, there is a feeling that the rest of the world outside Silicon Valley is playing catch-up. Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tesla, the battery-car company, has been a pioneer in autonomous technology. It’s Autopilot system is well-regarded and Tesla has collected a great deal of on-the-road, real-world data on autonomous technology through its electronic connection to owners.
For all its data mining, however, some believe that for technical reasons Tesla is falling behind, even as the company says its vehicles will be able to drive from Los Angeles to New York City without a “single touch” by the end of the year.
Rivals argue that because Tesla’s vehicles do not have something called LIDAR and cannot be equipped with LIDAR without a hardware upgrade, the Silicon Valley start-up is in trouble.
LIDAR? The acronym stands for Light Detection and Ranging. LIDAR uses pulsed laser – light pulses – to measure distances, and when combined with other data from cameras and GPS systems, allows the most advanced self-driving systems to generate precise, three-dimensional information.
Audi, for instance, will launch a new, LIDAR-equipped A8 premium sedan with Level 3 autonomy starting next year. Audi’s Level 3 tech will allow the A8 to carry on autonomously at speeds up to 60 km/hour or 37 mph. BMW says it will launch Level 3 in 2021, good for speeds up 129 km/hour or 80 mph.
The staggering complexity of reaching Level 3 requires LIDAR and a camera in the instrument cluster, monitoring the driver, according to BMW, Audi and others. Tesla’s Model S and X, as well as the Model 3, cannot be software-updated to Level 3 autonomy; they don’t have LIDAR. Instead, Tesla’s Autopilot relies on radar and cameras to provide data for the car’s computer brain.
Level 3 autonomy allows the driver to look away from the road ahead for brief moments, but provides for prompts that snap the driver back into control immediately when required. The A8 is the first production car available with LIDAR and it’s intended as an antidote for painful stop-and-go driving.
BMW for its part, believes in LIDAR, arguing that its iNext system, to debut in 2021, will take autonomy to a higher level, still. Those going the LIDAR route argue that it’s the most complete and safety route to self-driving cars, though things like a camera to monitor the driver are also required.
Tesla, however, has said LIDAR is not only “exceptionally expensive,” but also has other drawbacks. LIDAR requires four or more devices mounted on the vehicle to get 360-degree coverage and even then, and LIDAR doesn’t detect colour or light. So LIDAR-quipped vehicles will still need cameras to detect taillights and stoplights, for instance. Tesla says LIDAR may prove to be an unnecessary and costly approach.
“Radar and cameras may do a better job, as the radar work in conditions where LIDAR and cameras will not (fog, snow, heavy rain, etc.),” says Tesla in a blog post on the pros and cons of these sorts of technologies.
YOUNG PEOPLE WANT SELF-DRIVING CARS
Virtually everyone agrees that the youthful wave of new-car consumers want self-driving cars. A recent Edmunds study reported by Bloomberg had some startling though predictable numbers.
Some 40 per cent of Millennials age 33 and younger would be willing to buy a robocar in the next five years. Less than 20 percent of Millennials would never consider a self-driving car at all. That’s in sharp contrast to 55-plus drivers, half of which would never let a robocar take over the driving.
SELF-DRIVING CARS ARE ALREADY HERE – SORT OF
Except, of course, many Baby Boomers and such are already using early forms of self-driving technologies. As the Detroit Free Press notes, early forms of autonomous technology have been steadily creeping into mainstream models. Active safety systems such as adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detection and automatic parking are now available on more than 60 per cent of new models.
“While there are a number of ways one can define who’s ‘leading’ in the race to autonomy, analyzing the prevalence of active safety features demonstrates just how ready (automakers) are to bring this technology to mass production, and how willing consumers are to adopt it,” says Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds.
Just consider: Edmunds notes that among 2017 models, Tesla leads the pack for offering active safety features with 57, followed by Volvo with 47 and Honda at 37. At the bottom, Mitsubishi (3) offers the fewest, behind Fiat Chrysler (7). Nissan and General Motors were tied with 13 and Ford offers 14.
WHAT’S IN THE WAY OF SELF-DRIVING CARS
The road to self-driving is littered with potential roadblocks, however. Jason Levine, the new head of the Center for Auto Safety, tells The Detroit News that fully autonomous cars are “a long way off,” adding that all the latest hype overlooks the reality of all the cars in “someone’s driveway today.” That is, the new self-driving cars must share the road with millions and millions of older cars piloted exclusively by humans.
Regulators, says Levine, create rules based on copious safety data and both real-world and controlled test data. Among many things, regulators will be looking for proof that robocars are safer than traditional cars driven by live human beings.
There is also the issue of cybersecurity. What will the car companies do to ensure that your automated vehicle won’t be hacked, with not just privacy implications in play, but the actual safety of those on board and others sharing the road.
Some other questions to be answered, barriers to be overcome:
- How will automated vehicles navigate roads crowded with non-automated cars, pedestrians and bicycles. Which groups and individuals get priority in difficult and dangerous circumstances?
- What about the economics of self-driving cars? For instance, if millions of truck drivers are replaced by self-driving technology, what happens to them, and the broad highway network of truck stops, motels, service centres and the like? Automation causes dramatic workforce displacement and the promise of economic disruption.
- Litigation: When two autonomous vehicles collide, who’s liable? When an autonomous vehicle collides with a car piloted by a human, who’s responsible? When systems fail or are fooled by various circumstances, who gets the blame?
Yes, it certainly appears that self-driving cars are coming. They seem inevitable. We are promised that they will be here sooner, not later. But will we be ready for them, and all the disruption they bring?