Until recently, driverless cars belonged in the pages of the tech press, with various experts musing about how long it would be before the cars found their place on the road. We’ve now passed this stage, with extensive tests of driverless cars and even the first convoy of autonomous trucks taking to the roads. Autonomous vehicles have made great progress. It won’t be long before we see a self-driving car get its own parking ticket, and then we’ll know that they’ve really joined the mainstream.
Joking aside, autonomous motoring still needs to overcome a major difficulty: the recognition of obstacles in the surrounding environment. These could be other vehicles, road signs or even inhospitable terrain. We’ve all heard the stories of drivers following satellite navigation guidance and ending up in rivers. Driverless vehicles would need a way to avoid such a watery fate.
One of the technologies that will assist with this is called LIDAR (light detection and ranging) which, as its name suggests, is a sort of combination of light and radar. Like radar, LIDAR surveys the surrounding landscape but instead of using radio waves, it uses laser beams to determine any obstacles in the car’s path.
The technology isn’t revolutionary. It’s already being used in some car systems for navigation, but it’s still in the early stages. To be used effectively, LIDAR needs to be refined further, since these systems are limited in what they’re able to “see” (and deployment isn’t cheap).
The emergence of 5G (fifth generation) cellular technology will be a real enabler for self-driving cars. This will work in several ways. First of all, 5G will help with the deployment of LIDAR by improving how the systems will be able to react. By interacting with LIDAR sensors in other vehicles, cars will be able to develop a more accurate picture of the landscape. Also, 5G will enable real-time information updates, leading to safer driving.
The use of 5G is crucial to the way autonomous cars will operate. It’s a technology that’s been much hyped, but it’s going to have a huge impact when it arrives. Although seen as just being a faster technology, 5G goes much deeper than that. The increase in speed isn’t just a slight boost. It’s suggested that 5G will see connectivity 100 times faster than the 4G network, reaching a maximum of 10Gbps — speeds that would have been mind-boggling just a few years ago.
But that’s not the only appeal. There’s also the issue of latency. With 4G, latency was at around 30 to 50 milliseconds. This will drop to 1 millisecond or less with 5G. This should translate into huge benefits for driverless cars.
The lag that comes with 4G limits the use of cellular technologies for autonomous vehicles because they require information to be processed as quickly and accurately as possible — literally calculating life and death situations right there on the road.
5G networks will offer vastly improved reliability and speed, resulting in more robust connectivity and fewer dropped signals. This, of course, won’t happen tomorrow. It’s not quite clear when 5G networks are going to hit the mainstream. Optimists claim it will be around 2021, while pessimists (or should that be realists?) predict it will be 2025. Whenever it arrives, the initial cost of 5G systems will be high, although certain to fall rapidly.
While it’s going to be at least 20 years before self-driving cars become the norm, we’re already seeing how vehicles are making the most of existing network technology.
Manufacturers such as Volkswagen, BMW, Toyota and others are already talking about the connected vehicle. These may not be self-driving, but they take in external information such as traffic and weather conditions. Carmakers understand it’s high time to move into creating software as they are looking to develop systems that provide drivers with additional information — for example, giving third parties, such as restaurants, the means to advertise their availability as drivers approach.
Manufacturers are also looking at how connected vehicles can transmit information about the state of their internal engines, which would help keep cars running longer. Predictive maintenance is a key benefit: Getting an accurate snapshot of a vehicle’s health could help nip issues in the bud before they grow into greater problems.
Connected cars are the harbinger of what’s to come. However, there’s a host of legal issues to sort out. Given the expected safety record of self-driving cars, there may be insurance advantages in going down this route. However, insurance could just as easily be a nightmare, raising questions such as: Who is liable in case of an accident? The vehicle manufacturer? The software provider? Or the owner?
Producing more detailed maps, as cars need to learn about the environment in which they’re operating, is another challenge.
Finally, there’s consumer resistance. Right now, many drivers resist the autonomous vehicle revolution because they like driving and being in control. There’s a particularly high proportion of these drivers in the United Kingdom. According to a survey from Forbes magazine, just 19 per cent of British drivers are looking forward to autonomous vehicles.
This might change. But reluctance to adopt the new technology may be expected at first. People don’t always immediately see technological innovations as desirable — look at the way users of the first mobile phones were treated as figures of fun.
However, as technology changes and 5G comes to fruition, we’ll see how driverless cars will capture the imagination of the public and, eventually, how today’s connected car will seem as old-fashioned as the horse and carriage.