For years we have been hearing that driverless cars will soon be dominating our highways as autonomous vehicles are developed. Not since the advent of the horseless carriage have we been faced with such a disruption in personal travel.
But the adoption of vehicle automation will likely take longer than many have thought. There may be a more gradual increase over several years through several stages. That will come with further development in artificial intelligence to make vehicles more autonomous.
Science policy writer Jeffrey Mervis writes for Science online about six levels of auto autonomy. Level zero describes the cars that our fathers and grandfathers drove. There was no automation in those old Fords and Chevys, and early automobiles didn’t have automatic transmissions or power steering. Level five would apply to a vehicle in which everything is automated and there are no manual controls — even if a driver wanted to take over.
The industry target is level four, a scenario where drivers can take over control of automated vehicles under certain conditions (such as inclement weather). According to a table in the article, the cars we currently drive fit into level one, those in testing now are level two, but the limited automation of level three might never be deployed. Here’s a summary of the levels of automation according to Mervis:
- Level Zero: no automation
- Level One: driver controlled with adaptive cruise control and parking assistance
- Level Two: partial automation accelerates, brakes, or steers and connects to other vehicles (IoT)
- Level Three: conditional automation assumes near full control within limited parameters
- Level Four: everything automated under certain conditions
- Level Five: everything automated under all conditions
The point is that there is not necessarily a binary choice between cars with drivers and driverless cars. It is matter of degree. New cars already include assisted driving capabilities, such as parking, braking, and object avoidance. We are making progress, but an article in the MIT Technology Review claims that “Driverless Cars Are Further Away Than You Think”.
Contrasting Visions of Autonomous Vehicles
The role that automated vehicles will take remains a matter of debate. We have all heard about a possible future that includes fleets of driverless trucks or taxis. Some people look forward to relaxing, sleeping, reading, or other activities in an autonomous vehicle that automatically delivers us to our destination. An article in the Atlantic predicts a time when car rides across town might be free — so long as the rider makes a stop at one of the taxi’s sponsors.
Some even see the advent of driverless cars as a solution that leads us to a new utopia. Benefits would include fewer accidents, with reduced casualties and medical cost savings. Automated vehicles that communicate with each other would make commutes easier by eliminating traffic jams. The young, disabled, or elderly would be able to “drive” across town, giving them more independence. Police would be freed up to work other issues when DUIs and speeding offenses become a thing of the past. And there would be an elimination of bureaucracy related to the DMV and drivers licenses.
But not everyone agrees with this rosy view. Vehicle automation might not be so friendly to the environment. And there might be a case of the haves and the have nots when only the rich can afford to buy automated cars. Of course, automated vehicles will be subject to the same issues that affect computers, such as viruses and cybercrime. And then there is a matter that no one seems to be discussing: Some people just love to drive! Being stuck with an automated car can take away the sense of control and independence that we feel out on the open road. As any Nascar or Indy race fan will tell you, they aren’t giving up the thrill of control and acceleration to autonomous vehicles.
Other Automated Vehicles
The first thing we think of when someone mentions automated vehicles are the cars that we drive every day. But those are not the only ones. I remember visiting the Docklands area of London more than a decade ago.
It seemed funny that the driver on the Docklands Light Railway was sitting back and reading the newspaper. That setup is probably more common than we realize. You’ve probably also heard that airline pilots do very little these days, while the huge jets that they allegedly fly are automatically controlled by onboard computers.
Automation could be implemented in any of the transportation systems we use, and industrial systems seem to use as much automation as possible. Assembly lines in manufacturing plans are automated, and robotic vehicles often defy classification. Automation seems to be everywhere.
While writing this article I met an Arkansas farmer who told me his automation story. He said that the tractors that work the soil now do it all without the benefit of a driver. The old farmer told me that young fellows in central control rooms run the automated farm vehicles now. Some of the tractors don’t even have steering wheels — which means that the old farmer couldn’t drive them even if he wanted to.
Who’s In Control with Autonomous Vehicles?
When we drive down the highway in our private vehicles, we know who is in control. We know who is pressing the accelerator, who is turning the wheel, who is applying the brake. We know who is monitoring the gauges and adjusting the radio volume. We are. But autonomous vehicles of the future will take advantage of another form of intelligence to make decisions. Artificial intelligence (AI), according to Encyclopedia Britannica, is “the ability of a digital computer or computer-controlled robot to perform tasks commonly associated with intelligent beings.” So-called driverless cars will actually be driven by artificial intelligence.
We already have many computers in our cars. These are called electronic control units (ECUs), and they manage vehicle systems such as engine, transmission, brakes, traction, and climate control. I wrote about it for Techopedia in an article called “Your Car, Your Computer: ECUs and the Controller Area Network”. AI will take this computerized control much further. Writer Colin Pawsey says that AI could be the driving force in autonomous vehicle development. “Autonomous technology is set to transform the motor industry, but there are no clear paths for manufacturers,” he writes. “As the autonomous mobility industry takes shape, artificial intelligence could play a much bigger role.”
There is no stopping the technological advances that shape our society. Market forces will continue to shape how science is applied, and the success of any technology is directly related to how widely it is adopted in industry or public use. It’s like test driving a new car. If you like it you will buy it, and if you really like it you’ll be sure to let all your friends know. The next decade should tell us a lot about how well people like autonomous vehicles and the artificial intelligence that drives them.