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Automated: The New Frontier

By Paul Vachon

Automated vehicles have the potential to make roads safer and more efficient and driving more convenient. Yet, skeptics have some serious doubts. Examples include concerns over the feasibility, safety, and cost, in addition to personal adjustments drivers will need to make.

Some observers may think the progress needed to overcome these obstacles makes the deployment of automated cars a distant, impractical prospect. Depending on the degree of functionality envisioned, however, this may not be the case.

New research has debunked myths about safety. Currently, 94% of car crashes involve human error at least partially, often the result of fatigue, distraction, or intoxication.

“An automated vehicle will never have these problems,” explains Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Navigant Research.

However, the five senses (touch, smell, sight, hearing, taste) that drivers have are challenging to replicate artificially.

“Automated cars use radar, lidar, and ultrasonic sensors and interpret that data through extremely complex software,” says Abuelsamid. “Since the software is written by humans, an error can creep into the process.”

But progress is accelerating.

“In the next one to three years, we’ll start to see some vehicles operate without safety drivers in certain areas, and under certain conditions,” says Abuelsamid.

Breakdown: Automated Vehicle Technology

Automated vehicle technology is projected to evolve along six levels, ranging from level zero, traditional automotive, to level five, a totally self-driving vehicle able to operate anytime, anywhere without human interaction.

Level one technologies include blind spot detection and adaptive cruise control, where each feature operates independently. Abuelsamid characterizes level one as “feet off.”

Level two, or partial automation, integrates these functions.

“This [level two] will maintain the vehicle’s speed and direction as one function,” says Abuelsamid. “It’s feet off, hands off, eyes on.” Levels one and two are offered today by several OEMs.

Level three will provide greater automation. While the driver will not have to continuously monitor the road, they will need to stay attentive and take over as needed.

“It’ll be feet off, hands off, eyes off – but brain on.”

Level four vehicles will offer total automation and may be used as unmanned taxis capable of traveling without passengers but may be limited to operating within certain hours or geographic areas.

The Next Decade Of Automated Deployment

More widespread deployment could become a reality by the late 2020s.

Brand new technologies almost always debut at high consumer price points, often due to the cost of developing and producing new components. In the case of an automated car, these include lidar and radar sensors, plus several outward facing cameras.

“As we scale, prices will go down, including lidars, currently the most expensive sensor employed,” says Dr. Georges Aoude, co-founder and CEO of Derq Inc. “Smart and connected infrastructure can also provide a layer of external sensors or eyes that could lead to fewer required sensors onboard the vehicle.”

As technology accelerates and vehicle prices decrease over time, automated cars could take over the mobility industry like never before.

Paul Vachon is a Detroit-based freelance writer.