For some time, the automotive industry has been fully committed to developing mainstream self-driving cars. Its continued efforts mean that the gap between what was once science fiction and reality is now rapidly closing. Indeed, some industry experts now expect fully autonomous vehicles to be available in the next decade.
This means that it is very possible that 10 years from now, family cars will be readily available on the market that needs no human intervention to make a safe and successful journey. It’s an exciting leap forward. These cars will change our lives in many ways.
When industry experts converge at self-driving technology conferences, the main talking points now revolve around the final few key technologies needed to be able to manufacture these vehicles for the public. They are getting ever closer to being able to offer Level 4 self-driving cars for general sale, and just a final few hurdles must be tackled.
Level 4 Self-Driving Cars
There are degrees of self-driving capabilities, but when most people imagine self-driving cars, they are thinking of Level 4 self-driving technology.
Many of us are currently enjoying Level 1 technology with features such as adaptive cruise control and park assist. A handful of us may even be enjoying Level 2, where internal systems can take care of more of the driving decisions, as long as the driver’s hands are still firmly on the wheel and eyes still set to the road. Level 4, however, is where the car can operate without the need for a human driver.
Level 4 may seem like a big leap from where we are now, but actually, we’re closer than you might expect. So, what are the final technological advancements needed to make Level 4 self-driving cars a reality on our roads?
3 Key Technological Advancements That Will Finally Bring Us Self-Driving Cars
- 5G Networks
The upgrade of existing 4G networks to 5G will make mainstream self-driving cars a possibility.
5G will greatly improve connection speeds and will be around 100 times faster than the 4G connections currently used by most of us. Not only will 5G be able to connect multiple technologies, but connections will be far more reliable, too. This means that self-driving cars will finally have a network that is fully capable of processing the vast amount of data collected by its sensors.
Self-driving cars will be able to process this information at incredible speeds as well. Their ability to respond to information sent by the sensors (for example hazards, on the road) will match and even exceed human capability.
5G connections will also enable vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) data sharing. This will allow self-driving cars to alert each other to adverse driving conditions, traffic, and hazards, for example. As a result, a self-driving car will be able to make alterations to its journey to ensure the safety of its occupants and minimal journey time.
5G networks are now increasingly available in many areas of the world, including parts of the USA, the UK, and the UAE. However, a far greater 5G coverage is still required for mainstream self-driving cars to take to the roads.
LIDAR is likely to be the primary system of sensors used by Level 4 self-driving cars. LIDAR stands for light detection and ranging. This technology has been used for some years in the scientific community (for example, to collect data during space missions).
LIDAR will measure a self-driving car’s distance from all objects in a 360-degree radius by pulsing light and calculating how long it takes the reflected light to return to the sensor. Millions of calculations can be made per second, which means a self-driving car can build and maintain an incredibly accurate picture of its surroundings, including the speed and trajectory of moving objects around it.
Unlike the human eye, LIDAR can maintain a continuous watch in all directions. It can also improve human abilities to calculate distances; even long distances can be calculated with a margin of error of around two centimeters. The car uses this information to adjust speeds and avoid hazards.
For self-driving cars to come to market, LIDAR must complete final testing processes to prove unequivocally its safety and allay any potential public misgivings. Furthermore, affordable and mass production-ready LIDAR technology must be available to automotive manufacturers. Excitingly, this is close to being the case.
- Sophisticated Machine-Learning Algorithms
5G connections and LIDAR sensors will bring a vast amount of data to a self-driving car’s computer every second. How will it then process this data to extract information that will ensure the car’s safety and a successful journey? This is where machine-learning software comes in.
In essence, if the LIDAR sensors replace the driver’s eyes, this software replaces the human brain. It must classify objects detected by LIDAR and predict how they may affect the vehicle.
Machine-learning software uses complex algorithms. These algorithms are strict processes used to make calculations and solve problems. In self-driving cars, algorithms can detect patterns and anomalies from within vast amounts of data. They can make and continually update predictions about the current course of the vehicle with a high degree of confidence, meaning dangers can be detected and avoided quickly.
Machine-learning software allows a self-driving car to always be “alert.” It will never get tired, be distracted by other passengers, or allow the mood to affect how it drives, unlike all human drivers.
However, these systems must undergo much more rigorous testing before self-driving cars can be considered completely roadworthy. Researchers are continuing to develop more and more sophisticated algorithms while others design tests to comprehensively and systematically scrutinize them.
The Impact of Self-Driving Cars
These three key technologies are now a short way from being ready to enable mainstream Level 4 self-driving cars. It is important, therefore, that we begin to prepare accordingly. It is essential that we have the workforce and infrastructure that are ready and able to cope with the impact of these vehicles.
It’s not just the automotive industry that needs to prepare. For example, it is anticipated that with less time spent driving and less stressful journeys, both the travel and entertainment industries will benefit significantly.
For those interested in finding out more about the technology and how it will impact the wider world, including other industries, attendance at a self-driving automotive exhibition is highly recommended.