The promise of fully automated vehicles understandably has many people quite excited about the future of travel, but even the most ardent supporters of a driverless future recognize that this is still a far-off dream. Moreover, as the technology to power these changes moves out of its nascent stages, it's becoming clear that there are many developmental avenues automated vehicles can go down. Companies are increasingly trying to fill those niches while they advance toward a rollout that's more workable on a large scale.
The state of autonomous vehicles is often referred to as a kind of "Wild West," both from a regulatory perspective and because there's no set direction for how the industry might turn from one year to the next, according to transportation and technology expert Richard Bishop, writing for Forbes. However, that industry-wide reputation may soon lose its luster, largely because companies are increasingly focusing their efforts on a few concepts.
By no means does this narrower approach to development and testing of automated vehicles portend any sort of universal approach any time soon, but more companies are settling into directions that seem more promising than the somewhat scattershot approaches they were taking previously, the report said. All have the same goal — to reach a future in which no one has to manually operate a motor vehicle — but the paths they are taking appear set to vary quite broadly. Some may be dead ends, but others could be shortcuts that pay off significantly.
Data will be key
Even with all these different approaches, there's seemingly one thing just about everyone in the AV sphere can agree upon: Big data infrastructure will need to be significantly ramped up to support a widespread rollout of these vehicles, according to Assembly magazine. As today's driverless cars navigate city streets they collect a lot of data at all times, which has to be interpreted by the artificial intelligence undergirding the systems operating the vehicle in the first place.
Simply put, autonomous vehicles need that data to "get smarter" on a continual basis, which is certainly not how even advanced driver-assist systems tend to work today, the report said.
"It is clear that machine learning and big data have an important role in advancing the capabilities of automated vehicles," Bryan Reimer, Ph.D., a research scientist in the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics and associate director of The New England University Transportation Center, told the magazine. "As automated vehicle technologies evolve, one would expect that algorithms that were once embedded in the vehicle in production will be replaced more frequently by algorithms that are learning over time."
Moreover, though, it's worth noting that experts widely believe these systems may need to "talk" to one another in the future to ensure that no sudden movements catch one car's AI system unawares, the report said. As such, Reimer says, it's likely that truly driverless roadways are quite a few years off, and in the meantime, more needs to be done to teach these vehicles as much as possible about sensing, traveling and more.
A different approach
Meanwhile, it's not just automakers and AI developers that are working on systems that keep drivers safe, according to CNBC. The British government just announced a plan to start evaluating an automated lane-keeping system (ALKS) on its highways, so that human drivers in advanced vehicles have the option of turning over operation of their autos to the road itself. Right now, ALKS platforms only allow vehicles to be taken over when they are going at relatively slow speeds, but the U.K. is eyeing a future in which drivers going as fast as 70 miles per hour can cede control of their vehicles.
The goal is obviously to make driving safer, smoother and more convenient, but here, too, it's acknowledged that widespread use of ALKSes at scale could be more than a few years in the future, the report said. However, there's a lot at stake; the nation's Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders estimates that with automated vehicle tech in widespread use across the U.K., the number of serious accidents there could drop by some 4,700 per year, saving almost 400 lives annually over the course of a decade.
Moving forward at home
Stateside, there's a similarly growing understanding of how valuable AV technology may be, and lawmakers want to support that growth any way they can, Sen. John Thune, a Republican representing South Dakota and former chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, wrote for the Aberdeen News. Thune introduced the American Vision for Safer Transportation Through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act in 2017 in hopes of giving the U.S. Department of Transportation new options for rolling out these vehicles safely.
The hope is that in the near future, AV START can be passed to truly lay the groundwork for more widespread use, the report said. In the meantime, the DOT is engaged in the Automated Vehicle Transparency and Engagement for Safe Testing initiative to raise public awareness and boost collaboration between private enterprise and the federal government.
The future seems to be bright for automated vehicles at home and abroad, but companies need to be conscientious about consistent, long-term testing and deployment of such autos. Public perception is still very much on the fence about a driverless future, and more may need to be done to sway opinion and convince all involved that these systems represent progress and convenience, rather than the perceived negatives that may still linger in many motorists' minds.
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