Production-Ready Autonomous Vehicles

Today, some vehicles can be purchased that have some autonomous driving capabilities built-in. Tesla is the poster child for this, with assisted driving available on all its models as an optional software upgrade. Despite its name, however, its “AutoPilot” system is technically only at Level 2, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) autonomy scale as part of the six levels of autonomous driving.

Audi’s A8 Saloon features “Traffic Jam Pilot”, which the automaker claims is a Level 3 system. As the name suggests, it’s designed to work in areas of congestion and will only operate at speeds of up to 37mph, but it will allow the driver to fully take their hands off the wheel and even their eyes off the road.

However, even though it was first offered on the A8 as far back as 2018, due to regulatory hurdles, Audi has never been permitted to activate the system for drivers. This is because running in “hands-off, eyes off” mode currently contravenes driving regulations and while autonomous driving is allowed in some countries, it is still only for testing purposes. In addition, with a Level 3 system, when it is engaged, responsibility in the event of an accident lies with the car manufacturer, which adds more complexity to the legal situation. Other companies that offer production-ready autonomous vehicles are Waymo, the spin-off from Google’s autonomous driving project. In early 2020 it announced that its cars had covered more than 20 million miles (32.2 million km) on public roads since its creation in 2009 and it is currently asking residents in San Francisco to help it with driver testing.

Another company testing autonomous cars in Cruise, which has connections to General Motors and Honda. Cruise has permission to test Level 4 cars in certain areas in California and has covered about half a million miles – however, these miles have been on the more challenging local streets of San Fransico making the numbers more impressive than they initially look. The company hopes to launch services to the public soon.

Developing production-ready vehicles

What is significant, and a true advancement over conventional non-autonomous cars is that if the hardware in the vehicle is capable, then a vehicle’s autonomous capabilities can be improved and upgraded over its lifetime through new software models and more sophisticated neural networks.

This not only will bring improvements for the driver and passengers, but it offers up new opportunities for the car companies in the form of additional monetisation paths. It effectively enables software-as-a-service to become a revenue stream via services that can be updated “over the air” (OTA). For example, navigation features can be updated, infotainment services improved, and autonomous self-drive features enhanced, all without the car having to leave the customer’s driveway.

Software updates are already being delivered to cars that are on the road today – and it won’t be too long before it will be the norm. The development of autonomous vehicles has meant improvements in safety, too, with all now adhering to ISO 26262 safety standards.

New features in production-ready vehicles

Today, we can take advantage of features such as auto emergency braking, lane-keep assist and others. Many of these techniques will apply to full autonomy but are positioned today as advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). While these are now introduced in basic versions, we will see features being expanded as the technology matures.

One example would be today’s “parking assist”, which can currently help you reverse into a tight space, evolve into “automated valet parking” and “smart summoning”, where a vehicle can be summoned via a smartphone app and duly turn up at your door. The car will navigate by itself slowly around say a car park for instance to come to your side and eventually come to you from several streets away.

While basic versions of this are available today, these will eventually develop into robotaxi services which will plan routes to pick up the passengers in the most efficient order.

Going forward with AI

In the USA, companies such as Cruise, Waymo and Zoox, and around the world Auto-X, Baidu, Pony.AI, and Xpeng are all developing autonomous driving services with increasing levels of sophistication, and are building this into their vehicles.

In fact, the list of companies that support autonomous vehicles is increasing every day. As a result, many of the benefits can be accessed today and, in the future, these will become increasingly intelligent.