Autonomy Almost a Reality

Fri, 09/01/2017 - 09:07

While the integration of connectivity and digital features have made vehicles safer and better-performing, the integration of these technologies has one ultimate goal: to make self-driving vehicles a reality in the not-so-distant future. The technology exists, the only question is when it will be implemented

The industry is not that far from full autonomy. Semi- autonomous features are becoming a common feature in consumer brands, mainly due to the safety advantages these technologies offer. Lane-keeping assist systems are among the common examples. In its most basic functionality, entry models already include this technology, which acoustically alerts the driver when the vehicle starts straying into another lane. Premium and luxury models feature an advanced version that actively prevents the driver from changing lanes without using the vehicle’s signal lights. This entails a certain amount of control over the steering system, which was previously reserved solely for the driver.

Technology is rapidly advancing and even emergency braking- assist technologies have made their way to the consumer market. Depending on the conditions, these systems either alert the driver when there is danger of a collision or take over the braking system and reduce the vehicle’s speed to diminish the effects of an imminent impact. The combination of these technology platforms has allowed OEMs to delve further into self-driving applications.

Tesla is now the poster company for semi-autonomous vehicles already available on the market. According to the company, every vehicle produced by Tesla has the necessary hardware for self-driving. This includes the Model 3, Tesla’s newest and least expensive model at only US$35,000. With Autopilot, the company became the first market brand to offer an advanced degree of autonomy in its vehicles. In its first version, Autopilot allowed the driver to relinquish control of the vehicle to the software, which could control the car’s speed depending on traffic conditions and steer following highway markings. In case of wanting to change lanes or exit the highway, the driver had to take back control of the vehicle. Tesla has now upgraded its Autopilot software and the driver’s involvement is practically unnecessary in highway scenarios. Autopilot can now switch lanes at will and exit main roads without assistance. The driver needs to intervene only when entering secondary roads. The company is confident that its technology can perform well-enough to ensure full- autonomous functionality under almost every condition. However, according to Tesla’s webpage, the implementation of such advanced technology will depend on regulations established by federal governments.

Industry experts agree that technology is not what limits the evolution of self-driving cars. “If you run over a person or you have an accident while in a self-driving vehicle, who is at fault: the driver, the manufacturer or the insurer?” asks Andrés Lerch, Advisory Partner and Leader of the Operations Transformation Area at EY Mexico’s Automotive Center. “The technology is ready but the problem is deciding how it should be regulated.” The difficulty with these technologies is that they are not a single company’s effort but the combination of different technologies that in the end, will be self-controlled. Today, insurance companies know who is at fault in a collision and if there is a malfunction in the car, the component can be traced back to its original manufacturer. Software and artificial intelligence applications are more difficult to control. On the one hand, if drivers are not in control of the vehicle, how can they be blamed for something it did, even when they own the car? On the other hand, who is to blame for a system malfunction: the developer, the company who implemented it or the OEM that assembled the vehicle?

The US is leading the charge in the implementation of laws and regulations focused on autonomous vehicles. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 33 US states introduced legislation focused on autonomous vehicles in 2017 and so far, 20 states have passed legislation, including Nevada, which was the first state to authorize tests of self- driving vehicles in 2011.