For most the idea of a driverless vehicle or self driving car is a concept better left on the big screen. However what many people don’t know is that engineers, researchers, and automotive companies have been working toward making autonomous vehicles a reality for decades. In fact, 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the first long-duration field test of a self-driving car. The last two decades have seen a drastic change in the technology landscape and you might be surprised to know that autonomous technology is being used by many tech savvy car companies today. For example, cars that feature “park assist,” “rear cross traffic alerts,” or “adaptive cruise control” are all examples of autonomous technology.
The Society of Automotive Engineers ranks automation of on-road vehicles on 6 levels:
- 0 – No Automation
- 1 – Driver Assistance
- 2 – Partial Automation
- 3 – Conditional Automation
- 4 – High Automation
- 5 – Full Automation
Cars that feature park assist and adaptive cruise control would fall under levels 2 and 3 of the SAE’s automation guide. But what about level 4 or even level 5? Autonomous vehicles that can achieve Level 4 would be able to perform task such as highway passing, stopping at traffic lights, navigating a traffic jam, responding to events, and determining when to change lanes. These task are accomplished through a variety of techniques including radar, lidar, GPS, odometry, as well as cameras and sensors attached to the vehicle itself. These technologies all work together to give the vehicles a “feel” for their surroundings.
Currently there are not any vehicles available on the market boasting level 4 or 5 capabilities but the technology is out there and some car manufacturers have begun investing heavily in the technology. At CES 2016, Kia announced the creation of it’s new DRIVE WISE technologies, an umbrella for its autonomous driving technologies including:
- Highway Autonomous Driving (HAD) employs a combination of radar and camera detection systems to interpret lane markings, allowing the car to stay in its lane or switch into others to overtake other vehicles or follow a different road; all without driver input.
- Urban Autonomous Driving (UAD) applies GPS and sensors to identify the car’s position on the road, allowing it to safely navigate through densely-congested city environments while responding to live traffic updates.
- Preceding Vehicle Following (PVF) is an enhanced lane-keeping system which monitors the vehicle in front and allows the car to calculate its own path relative to it, following at a safe distance if road markings are indecipherable due to poor conditions or road layout.
- Emergency Stop System (ESS) operates in correlation with Kia’s Driver Status Monitoring (DSM) system, to analyse the driver’s face, ensuring their attention does not stray from the road for too long. If it detects that the driver takes their eyes from the road for too long, ESS can automatically direct the car into an appropriate side lane and come to a halt.
- Traffic Jam Assist (TJA) monitors the vehicle in front during congested traffic conditions, maintaining a safe distance from the vehicle in front and moving into appropriate spaces to gain ground.
- Autonomous Valet Parking allows drivers to exit the car and let the vehicle park itself remotely, activated using the smart key or a smartwatch.
Furthermore, the company announced plans to bring fully autonomous cars to the market within the next 15 years, like this self driving Kia Soul.
In the meantime, there are still many questions left unanswered. For starters, how will these technologies work around hazards such as the ever shifting road construction environment? What about hazards such as snow and ice both on the road and built up on sensors? What will the legal environment surrounding autonomous vehicles look like? It will be interesting to see what the next 15 years bring and whether the landscape and the legal-scape will be ready for autonomous cars should they make it to the market.