Driving is a skill the millions carrying licences may take for granted, but for the brightest minds in technology trying to design a fully autonomous vehicle and the environment to support it, the challenge is proving no Sunday drive.
“We’re definitely not where we were told we’d be by now,” said University of Windsor associate professor Francesco Biondi, who has done extensive work on AV and driver assistance systems for both academic institutions and Jaguar Land Rover.
“I feel like in the last six months to a year, we’ve made a lot of progress in recognizing the limitations of the technology we have available. We’re at a point where the AV community has acknowledged the fact that driving is more difficult than we thought it would be.”
Biondi said a former Waymo executive accurately described the scale of the challenge when he said sending a rocket to Mars is easier than developing a fully autonomous vehicle.
Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association president Flavio Volpe and Biondi both agree the industry is at about Level 3 on the five-step ladder to fully autonomous vehicles.
“I’m confident in reaching L4 in 10 years,” said Volpe, whose organization is overseeing a project to construct the L3 Arrow zero emissions vehicle to showcase the capabilities of Canadian companies.
“I think whether we get to L5 is going to be a decision made by organizations like the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration).
“It’s the role of the regulators to dictate safety and boundaries. An innovator obsessed with boundaries never reaches them.”
There are still many bumps in the road ahead with the launch of investigations in August by the U.S.’s NHTSA into several crashes involving Tesla’s Auto Pilot system being just one.
This past weekend Toyota temporarily removed its self-driving e-Palette pods from service at Tokyo Paralympics after a visually disabled athlete was struck in the athletes’ village.
Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda said it showed autonomous vehicles were not yet ready for ‘normal roads.’
“I think we’re in one of those moments in history when the technology is moving faster than regulators can,” Volpe said. “Tesla has pushed the envelope and the entire industry has benefitted.”
Volpe said to reach Level 5 will require an entire culture change by society along with a complete turnover of the fleet of analog cars on the road.
From the car-buying public’s perspective, Volpe said consumers still look at AV products as a bit of science fiction.
Biondi added there’s still much work to be done on the technological side of the vehicles.
“The sensing technology that enables us to detect different obstacles on the roads and the complexity of how different obstacles on the road may behave from pedestrians to other cars to bicycles — we haven’t been able to really develop the processing technology that allows us to safely and accurately detect these objects,” Biondi said.
“The issue of sensing, in my view, is the big hurdle to the adoption of this technology. I think we’re decades and decades away from seeing mass adoption of L5 passenger vehicles.”
Biondi added the industry has also been guilty of overselling the capabilities of the current levels of autonomous vehicles. He feels that has played a role in many of the crashes involving autonomous vehicles.
“Marketing has been a problem,” Biondi said. “The driver expects certain capabilities the car can’t deliver.”
However, that doesn’t mean L5 and L4 technology won’t be employed elsewhere.
In fact, Biondi said L5 vehicles are being used in public transit in controlled spaces already.
“Commercial vehicles are something quite different than passenger vehicles,” Biondi said. “It’s going to have a wider adoption of autonomous technology much sooner.
“There’ll be truck platooning.”
“You’ll have a different trucks driving together. Instead of all trucks having human drivers, you’ll just have the first truck with a human driver leading a platoon.”
Volpe added he also expects low speed micro, last-mile and drone deliveries to also be early adopters of L5 transportation.