Big technologies we need for fully automated cars

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A lot of focus with automated cars has been put on the actual physical driving aspect of it. The sensors, the computer behind them and the way it literally handles accelerating, braking and steering the vehicle. But that’s not actually as complicated as it might seem. That sort of tech might be in its infancy now, but making it mainstream is a long way off and that’s a good thing, because it means we have more time to work on all the other aspects of a vehicle that we need to get right, before we’re ready for driverless cars taking us to and from work, school and the high-street.

Safety equipment

We’ve talked a lot about safety equipment here at Telematics.com, even going over our top five automated safety technologies in a breakdown a few weeks ago. So there’s is some crossover between automated driving and automated safety. In-fact you could say automated safety is the stepping stone to full automation, but on it’s own, it’s still incredibly important.

Perhaps the most necessary function for an automated vehicle will be pedestrian detection. If someone walks out in-front of one of these things, it needs to be able to stop in time. At the moment we have basic versions of autonomous emergency braking, but it only tends to work at speeds under 50 miles per hour and even then, it can’t guarantee that you’ll avoid the accident, only that it will reduce your speed before impact. For a driverless vehicle, that will need to work perfectly at speeds up to 80 miles per hour at a reasonable distance.

aeb

While there might be no way to make a car stop that quickly when it detects someone in-front of it, it might be possible if predictive algorithms would slow the car down slightly when a person is seen potentially about to walk into the road. This is something a human driver would do, so it will be necessary for a piloted car to do the same. This would be similarly useful for preventing animal related accidents and should be augmented beyond the abilities of a human with the aid of infra-red cameras and laser radar sensors.

Another system that will need to see improvement over current versions, is lane assist. At the moment, cameras are able to detect lines that divide motorway lanes and can either give you a warning or correct you if you happen to stray too far from it. However, currently it doesn’t work well in poor weather or if the camera’s vision is obscured. This will need fixing if it’s ever to help keep an automated vehicle on the road. Keeping to a lane is a simple task for a human but a complicated one for a computer. It needs to be easy by the time we allow loads of automated cars on our roads.

Similarly, we’re also going to need better blind spot detection. As it stands, while blind spot cameras can offer a human driver an extra viewpoint, the automated functions that prevent the car moving out into a lane where someone is coming to pass them aren’t good enough. They struggle to pick up fast moving cars and bikes are almost 25 per cent more likely to go unseen by the cameras. That would be the kind of situation that would create legal problems for automated vehicles, if they started side-swiping motorists. In the case of bikers it could be potentially fatal.

We’re also going to need a more advanced version of the smart cruise control system. While we’ve seen a few companies release automated technologies that allow you to cruise on the motorway without worrying about people in-front (it will automatically slow you to their speed if you catch up to them) ideally we want a convoy system. What this would mean is that the cars can link up together, travel at the same speed at set distances and use the sensors on the front car to provide information for the ones behind. This will save fuel by giving the cars behind “clean air,” but also means that cars can potentially bunch closer together, saving room on the roads.

Cyclists should even end up being safer on the road with automated cars. Volvo and partners have already patented a technology to detect cyclists and display their location on a heads up display on the windscreen. Though it will need perfection first, of course.

 Infotainment

When Google showed off its pod cars earlier this year, they came equipped with just a touch screen for navigation and a “Go” button. That was it. No steering wheel, no pedals, no controls of any kind beyond that touch-interface. While that system handled navigation with you inputting your destination like a traditional sat-nav, that won’t be good enough for a commercial product. No, if we’re going to be driven around without needing to look at the road, we’re going to need something to do and that means entertainment.

Before long, it won’t be that odd to see people watching full movies in their car while heading to work, or people playing multiplayer games with other passengers as they speed down the motorway, eyes as far from the road as can be. And that’s fine, but it will be needed. Not everyone can read while driving, so we’re going to need entertainment functions. Fortunately, the first generation of that sort of heavily connected, entertainment packed car is coming thanks to Google’s Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay head units. Combined with the power of  a smartphone, they offer a lot of function without disrupting the traditional car environment too much.

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They also provide the ability for information gathering too. As well as showing you a map of just where you are going, there’s also the potential for web browsing and news reports. You could watch your local anchors or national ones, or browse news sites and have Google or Apple’s assistant software read the headlines to you. Perhaps there will even be an option for a BBC cadence to make it feel more authentic.

This sort of information could also give you updates on traffic and weather in real time, letting you perhaps re-adjust your destination on the fly, or to let you know that your automated-car wants to take you on a different route to avoid traffic. In the long term we probably won’t even be consulted on such a thing, but in the early days, if your car suddenly starts driving off somewhere unexpected, that could be quite worrisome.

And these are just the sort of uses for infotainment head-units in a car that we can think of now based on current technologies. In year to come, a decade or two down the line, the connected car experience is going to be unlike anything we have today, with new forms of entertainment, games and information streaming to us in high-definition and with little delay – or concern that we’re barrelling down the motorway while we view it.

Whether Apple and Google are still battling it out by that point remains to be seen, but the next few are going to give us our first taste of real in-car infotainment. Watch this space to get the first hints of where they might be going in the future.

 

Connectivity

The only downside to all this infotainment and processing for automated features (some of it potentially in the cloud) is that it will require a much more robust connection. What happens if your automated car can’t download the latest map from the Google servers? Or what happens when your kids are all streaming different HD movies while you’re trying to get directions to the nearest petrol station? What happens when a fully automated car gets its instructions a few milliseconds too late?

Some of the outcomes of these scenarios are worse than others, but none of them are what you want when you’re behind the non-wheel of a piloted vehicle. So the question is, what do we do to avoid it? The best bet, is to implement a much more powerful wireless internet standard. What kind of standard are we talking about? 5G.

As it stands, 4G connections offer wireless speeds of up to (in a few areas) 100Mbps, which is around 10 Megabytes per second. While fine for watching a couple of HD movie streams, that won’t do when it comes to sending directions, commands and content all at once to a heavily connected vehicle, let along the millions that will one day be on our roadways. 5G on the other hand has already been proven capable of achieving 1Gbps, or around 10 times that of the highest 4G bandwidth rates already. However, it has also been theorised as being potentially capable of handling hundreds of gigabits per second, which would allow upwards of 35 HD movies to be downloaded every second. With 5G we could potentially do away with wires for good.

5g

However it’s not just the bandwidth that’s important with 5G, but the latency. When it comes to safety critical functions like those an automated car will take, it will need to stay in touch with a central computing system to give it updates and improve its processing capabilities – processing through the cloud. However, if those instructions come a few milliseconds late, in the event of an accident that could be catastrophic. Fortunately then, 5G drops current latency rates from 20 milliseconds or so, down to just a single millisecond, guaranteeing near instantaneous transfer of massive amounts of information.

Of course 5G is only in the early stages of development right now, but it will come into play in 2020 or so and is expected to see us right through into the 2030s. At that point we’ll probably be looking to 6G to solve all sorts of new problems, but by then we’ll be well in the grips of automated vehicles and we’ll have the connectivity backbone to handle all of that data. Hopefully.

Conclusion

So there you have it, the biggest technological shifts we need to see before we can expect driverless, automated and piloted cars to take to our road ways in large numbers. It’s going to revolutionise a lot, giving us cheaper transport, more efficient vehicles, motorway convoys and a more connected experience while on the road than ever before.

However those changes aren’t going to be easy. Even when we get to the point where the technological ground work has been laid, there will still be a lot more to do, especially when it comes to things like insurance, the public’s attitude to the technology and legislation. Who is going to pay for repairs when an accident is caused by an automated car? Who’s at fault? Will the insurance industry even need to exist because accidents become a thing of the past?

In some countries it will be a genuine cultural shift when people stop dieing on the roads, as in places like India and China it happens thousands of times a week. Imagine how efficient everything would be if we just stopped having to remove damaged cars from the road?

It’s an interesting new world that the connected and automated car is going to bring. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re not that far off either.

Image Source: Broadcom

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Jon Martindale is an English author and journalist, who's written for a number of high-profile technology news outlets, covering everything from the latest hardware and software releases, to hacking scandals and online activism.