In this article, I will discuss the potential and ultimate reality of Autonomous Driving, or in layman’s terms, driver-less cars.
First, to define Autonomous Driving… It is a vehicle that “drives itself”. It is able to sense its environment and make adjustments or corrections to operate and maneuver a vehicle without human intervention.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has defined 5 levels of Autonomous Driving. Level 0 (not really a level) is what most of us encounter every day; a car that must be completely controlled by its driver. Levels 1 through 5 of Autonomous Driving define various implementations of automation that transfer control of certain functions from the driver to the vehicle. Most automobiles manufactured today are at least Level 1 vehicles because they are equipped with Cruise Control, an automated function that has been available for decades. Level 1 vehicles are defined as a vehicle with 1 automated primary driving function.
Many new vehicles fall into the Level 2 category which is, you guessed it, a vehicle equipped with 2 automated driving functions. In many vehicles this would be Cruise Control and Lane Detection or Lane Centering (the ability to keep the vehicle between the lines of the driving lane). Automated braking also qualifies as a Level 2 function.
Levels 3 – 5 define even greater means of automation, with the greatest change coming between Levels 3 and 4. Level 3, known as “limited self-driving” is a mode in which the vehicle is able to perform all driving functions, but with the ability to return control back to the driver when necessary. This mode allows the driver to remove his/her/its hands from the steering wheel and even engage in other activities, but the driver must be willing and ready to regain control of the vehicle when notified.
Level 4, is total driver-less mode. The human in the car is a passenger who might give the vehicle instructions regarding the destination, etc, but for every other function, the vehicle is in control, and remains in control throughout the entire journey.
Level 5, is not only driver-less, it is unmanned. This is a mode of Autonomous Driving in which no human is present in the vehicle. Level 5 vehicles could be used to take the place of delivery trucks, etc.
How will this impact our lives?
That’s a good question considering the estimate that ALL vehicles manufactured after 2040 will be Level 5 capable vehicles. So let’s consider how we evolve from mostly Level 1 vehicles in 2016, to all Level 5 vehicles in 2040…
Consider a trip to the grocery. You leave your home in your personal vehicle. You navigate through the local streets and roadways to the grocery store where you select the best possible parking space. You park, enter the store, make your grocery selections, check out, and repeat the entire process in reverse, all of which takes about an hour.
Fast forward to 2020. You log onto your computer and make your grocery selections on line. You choose a pick-up time and location (from the local branch of your grocery store). You navigate to the store, park in a specially marked “on line purchase” parking spot. You text a special code to the store and a clerk brings your pre-paid groceries to your car. You return home, having spent about half an hour of your time, and all without entering the store.
Fast forward to 2015. You log onto your computer and make your grocery selections on line. You choose a pick-up time and location (from the local branch of your grocery store). You navigate to the store, park in a specially marked “on line purchase” parking spot. But this time, you don’t have to text anything to the store. A camera at the parking spot recognizes your vehicle license number, alerts a robot in the store, and here comes an automated conveyor cart with your groceries. That same camera uses facial-recognition technology to cross reference your face with your vehicle. If the two don’t match, you get a text alert asking you to enter your purchase code to confirm your identity. After all, you may be driving some other car this day.
Keep in mind that during the 10 years that have passed in the above example, the grocery store has been completely remodeled. It now more closely resembles a warehouse. Automated systems rotate inventory. RFID chips track every product’s location and shelf time. The handful of customers who still choose to enter the store make their purchases from a Kiosk. An automated conveyor delivers the groceries to the customer at the front of the store. Nobody spends an hour in the store walking the aisles to see what’s on sale, etc.
This will completely change the way products are marketed to consumers.
Fast forward to 2030. You tap the touch screen on your refrigerator. You see that the automated inventory system maintained by the refrigerator knows that you need milk, eggs, Velveeta slices, etc. etc. You add a few items to the pre-populated list and select “purchase”. The groceries are packaged in a distribution center in a warehouse district and delivered to your home in an hour. There is a driver in the delivery vehicle, but his/her/its primary responsibility is to set your packages on your porch. A proximity indicator knows that the delivery vehicle has stopped at your home and sends you a text alert that your groceries are on your front porch. The delivery vehicle continues on its journey, dropping off groceries to a half-dozen of your neighbors on the same trip.
That same evening, you have plans to see a local band playing at your favorite restaurant. Since your calendar app is linked to the local transportation system, and you have set your preferences to arrive 15 minutes before the schedule time, you get a text at 6:25 pm letting you know that your “shared ride” will arrive in front of your home at 6:45 to pick you up. (Think shared “Uber” service, fully automated). Your ride arrives at your home, the driver confirms your identity and destination, you board the 12-passenger electric transport, fully equipped with WiFi, beverage service, and a restroom. 33 minutes later you arrive at the restaurant for dinner, music, and dancing. Have as much to drink as you wish, your automated transport will make sure you arrive home safely.
Fast forward to 2040. Most roadways built in the last 10 years are restricted to Level 4 or 5 vehicles only. Traffic accidents have been reduced by 80%, and traffic accidents involving injury to the passengers or a fatality have been reduced by 96%. Most accidents now involve low-speed situations in parking lots, etc. where humans have regained control of the vehicle.
Your trip to the office now takes 20 minutes instead of 45 minutes 10 years ago. You work during the commute to your office, and so do the other 11 people on your shared transport. Congestion on the roadways is a thing of the past. Unmanned vehicles make deliveries and pickups of items weighing less than 40 pounds. A “car pool” of unmanned vehicles capable of transporting up to 6 passengers, is maintained within a 3-mile radius of your home. If you need to go somewhere, a transport is at your home within 10 minutes. If you need to deliver something or pick up something weighing less than 40 pounds, an unmanned transport makes the trip for you. A small refrigerated vault about 4′ x 4′ x 6′ tall, is integrated into your home’s structure near the driveway. Delivery vehicles are programmed to drop off standard sized containers in your vault for safe keeping until you arrive home. The RFID chips in the containers alert the vault if the items in the package need refrigeration. The packages are re-usable so that return items, trash, or recyclables can be placed into the vault from inside the home, ready to be picked up by an unmanned vehicle.
You stand in your garage looking at your 2036 model 5-passenger electric car with 3,240 miles on the odometer. The life expectancy of the car is 200,000 miles. You go back into your home and modify your will to include which one of your grandchildren gets the car when you pass.
Welcome to 2040.