Autonomous Vehicles

Self-driving vehicles are no longer science fiction. The tricky engineering is now a solved problem.  The research is out of the lab and on the streets. The last barrier to mainstream adoption in the new Gilded Age is public perception and political will.  And don’t kid yourself.  That’s the easy part.

traffic fatalities, especially among distracted young people, should hasten the shift toward autonomy sooner than later.  Safety can be sold.  Car makers know this.  Insurers know this. Politicians know this, too.

The front lines will be commercial, as technology leaders like Alphabet push self-driving vehicles into mass transit, trucking and logistics. Car-sharing startup Uber, another major source of research, has outfitted a fleet of slick-looking Volvo SUVs with the requisite sensors, cameras and radar to put in service as conventional taxis – starting with low speed, tightly controlled settings.

The Obama Administration championed autonomous vehicle development, and the Trump administration has reached out to both Tesla and Uber executives for regulatory guidance.  Tesla  cars already enjoy advanced driver-assisted features through its Autopilot software. Through the end of 2016, Tesla drivers had racked up more than 1.3 billion miles using the program.  All of its future vehicles will come equipped with the software and Nvidia hardware required to reach full autonomy.

The next step: self-driving vehicles are going to come alive with communications.  They will chat with traffic lights, pedestrians, massive data networks, and other vehicles.

BMW, Mercedes and Audi jointly own HERE, a mapping software company founded by Nokia.    They plan to use that software as a hub for a massive platform that will store, organize and share  traffic data.  Their vehicles will start learning from shared experiences without human intervention.

Waze, a mobile application owned by Alphabet, is already doing some of this.  It uses sensors in subscribers’ smart phones along with crowdsourcing to make sense of traffic conditions, police radar traps and even road closures.  The result is shorter and safer commutes that are sometimes eerie in their prescient ability to avoid traffic jams.

The HERE platform will use front-facing cameras on vehicles to read road signs for construction or lane closures. It will use windshield wiper sensors to detect the intensity of inclement weather. It will use anti-lock brake sensors tell the tale of slower traffic.

And that is just the start.  In the future, data from connected cars with ultrasonic and LiDAR sensors will bring to life Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) communication systems aimed at  removing line of sight limitations altogether.  This data will help ease the transition from assisted-driving systems to legitimate driverless cars.

Researchers at McKinsey expect the global market for vehicle connectivity components alone will reach $220 billion by 2020.  Companies like chip maker Qualcomm and cloud provider Microsoft will gain as they merge the worlds of software, hardware and mobility.  

The idea of autonomous cars, trucks and buses  connected by and communicating with a giant network might seem like science fiction.  A few years ago it was.  Not anymore. Soon it will be seen as a critical piece of the new Gilded Age.  Buckle up.