Why do we need autonomous cars?
For starters, the first question that comes to mind is why we even need autonomous cars in the first place. Is it only to show off and will they only be available to the wealthiest part of society?
Believe it or not, autonomous cars aren’t only there to make you look cool. The primary reason they were introduced is for safety purposes.
According to Evgenii Uvarov, Senior Project Manager at Luxoft, these vehicles are there to fix what we don’t like about regular cars.
“As a driver, I don’t like the traffic jam. Accidents are definitely the worst risk with regular cars. In fact, 94% of fatal accidents on the road are caused by human error. We need to do something about that, and I believe that autonomy can improve this situation,” he said during the “Software@200km/h – driverless cars and smart cities” webinar.
When this crucial point is ensured, we can think about additional benefits such as comfort, added Nenad Četić, Overall Project Manager at TTTech Auto.
“Autonomous cars could be perceived as time-travel machines because you get your time back. You can do something else instead of driving, like reading a book, for example. So, it’s not only safety but personal comfort as well,” he noticed.
At what stage of autonomy are we now?
If you ever showed any interest in autonomous vehicles, you have probably come across the international 6-level scale of autonomy. Not only that, but you’re probably aware that, with the newest models of cars, an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) is close to a must.
Source: Acko Drive
According to Evgenii, we’re moving closer to the middle of this 6-level scale.
“I’d say we’re somewhere in the middle now, between L2 and L3, while the latest advancements are even above these levels. As we can see from advertising over the past decades, they’re aggressively announcing year after year that we will soon have fully autonomous cars, but that’s not the case, we need to be more mature,” he said.
The latest important milestone happened in May 2022, when Mercedes-Benz became the world’s first manufacturer to get approved by German transport authorities to legally operate its L3 Drive Pilot on the country’s public roads.
How do autonomous vehicles work?
We as humans are always scared of the new and unknown. So, before we even consider the wide adoption of driverless cars, we need to at least try to understand how they work.
Let’s start with the example of the previously mentioned Mercedes-Benz model, which is the most advanced model to date that has entered mass markets. What consumers are the most interested in, is what happens in case of emergency, when an instant reaction from the driver is necessary.
Given that the L3 autonomy is conditional, if the vehicle loses the environmental or locational conditions to operate at L3, it will prompt the driver to take control within ten seconds. If the driver fails to respond in ten seconds, the car will automatically turn on emergency lights and decelerate to a full stop on the side of the road, then unlock the doors in case first responders might need access to the cabin.
And with so many companies introducing their prototypes, how can customers be sure who to trust?
Well, according to Evgenii, they’re not so independent in their research. In other words, they do need to comply with the same regulations and they oftentimes collaborate with each other, in the sense they’re not making the product from scratch but rather importing existing software in the body of the car.
“There are many electrical vehicles emerging right now. Some carmakers just modify existing cars by putting the software inside, but some manufacturers or even startups have decided to build vehicles from scratch. It’s really a lecture for everyone in the industry because they play with design so well, some of the models are even made without the steering wheel,” he explained.
The challenges of autonomous vehicles
In one way or another, there has been continuous work in this field since the initial ground was set around the 1980s. So, how come we don’t see driverless cars on the streets as much?
As it turns out, it’s not enough to just come up with a solution. There are countless challenges and some of them take years to overcome.
“In my opinion, the main challenge is data collecting and testing. We need to prove to a wide audience and to the government that car is safe. We need to drive hundreds of millions of kilometers without any accidents. And it’s not enough to only drive through highways where there are no pedestrians. You really need to cover different cases. It’s not a challenge that we can’t overcome but it takes time, and it requires different creative approaches,” Evgenii noted.
The way his colleague Nenad from TTTech Auto sees it, there are so many prerequisites that need to be established before the vehicle goes on the road.
“The prerequisite is to change the infrastructure, to have a completely safe environment. So, things will have to change significantly. A great example is Amazon which uses autonomous robots in warehouses to distribute packages. But for us, to go on the road where a lot of unpredictable things can happen, we will have challenges that are beyond our grasp. After all, if you put autonomous vehicles in the traffic, it’s inevitable that people will behave a bit differently,” he believes.
Source: “Software@200km/h – driverless cars and smart cities” webinar
He added that communication is going to be essential, both vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication.
“If you want to have a smart city and if you want to have all the advantages of technology, we need to talk about 5G, etc. Connected cars are really important, such as receiving the system update when you’re not driving, Tesla is already doing that. Without such a feature, the only way to update the vehicle is to go to the shop and do the expensive work on your car. On the other hand, there’s a danger with connected cars such as cybersecurity because you can end up with a malicious update or somebody hacking into your car,” Nenad pointed out.
And finally, let’s look at which countries have approved autonomous vehicles and to which extent their legal status is regulated.
“In most regions, we have L2 legalized, like Tesla models, where the driver is still liable for almost all actions. Additionally, we have seen some breakthroughs in some US states like Arizona or Los Angeless where they are allowing L3 and L4 to some extent. In Europe, Germany is allowing for L3. In Asia, there’s also L4 allowed in some places,” Evgenii listed.
However, don’t get your hopes too high because the latest models, L4, are not yet available on the mass market. They are still in the stage of prototypes.