WE are well and truly into the 21st
century at this point, and a common refrain from pretty much everyone at some
point as been “Where’s my flying car?”
Flying cars have proven to be impractical
for a variety of reasons, but development of self-driving cars has been
continuing nicely – meaning in the future, we’ll eventually be able to let the
car handle the mundane driving stuff while we get stuck into some serious
Driverless trains have been around for a
long time – The Docklands Light Rail in London opened in 1987 and cities around
the world from Vancouver to Kuala Lumpur to Istanbul have installed automated
Trains, of course, only go in two
directions (forwards and backwards) and stop at predetermined points. Cars are
an entirely different kettle of fish altogether – but that doesn’t mean we
aren’t well on the road to having self-driving vehicles, either.
The Society of Automotive Engineers International
divides vehicle automation into five (well, technically six) levels.
Level Zero is no automation at all, and
this was the state of affairs for pretty much all cars produced before about
2010. The driver is 100% responsible for pretty much everything to do with
operating the car. Standard cruise control doesn’t count as it is unable to
react to changes in environment (eg the car in front braking suddenly).
Level One is Driver Assistance – things
like lane departure warnings and adaptive cruise control (where the cruise
control does react to changes in the
environment, automatically slowing down or applying the brakes in the event it
is necessary). It can steer or
brake/accelerate, but not both at the same time.
Level Two is Partial Automation – according
to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Authority, “An advanced driver
assistance system (ADAS) on the vehicle can itself actually
control both steering and braking/accelerating simultaneously under some
circumstances. The human driver must continue to pay full attention
(“monitor the driving environment”) at all times and perform the rest of the
Level Three is Conditional Automation,
essentially “eyes off” – the car can handle all the aspect of driving under set
conditions (such as in slow-moving traffic on a dual-lane carriageway), but
needs the driver to be able to step in at short notice.
Level Four is a more or less fully
autonomous vehicle, although there may be situations – such as a serious
rainstorm – where the driver needs to take control.
Level Five is your Sci-Fi movie-type fully
autonomous vehicle, where the onboard systems handle everything with no input
at all from the occupants – to the point where there may not even be controls
in the vehicle.
German car manufacturer Audi has been
investing considerable resources into autonomous vehicles and driver assistance
technology, and recently launched the Audi A8,
one of the most advanced production cars on the market in this sense,
with a number of advanced features – according to Audi, it is the first
series-production automobile in the world to have been developed for
conditional automated driving at Level Three.
According to the automaker, on highways and multi-lane motorways with a
physical barrier separating the two directions of traffic, the Audi A8 can –
via its traffic jam pilot – handle the driving task in nose-to-tail traffic up
to 60 km/h; handling everything from starting, accelerating, steering and
braking within its lane.
From a technological standpoint, once traffic jam pilot is activated, the
driver can take their hands off the wheel and foot off the accelerator and the
car will handle the rest – although the driver must be capable of taking
control when the system asks, and local laws may dictate whether the driver can
do things like take their hands off the wheel or use a mobile phone.
A camera in the car checks to make sure the driver is capable of stepping
back in if needed, using anyonymised data measuring head position and eye
movement; if driver control is needed, visual and acoustic warnings are made
and if they are ignored, the car will apply the brakes on its own and come to a
stop in its lane.
The car has a central driver assistance system, which is about the size
of a tablet PC and continually merges the signals from all the vehicles sensors
into a differentiated model of the surroundings through its high-powered
Fully equipped, the Audi A8 has 24 sensors:
Twelve ultrasonic sensors on the front, sides and rear,
Four 360-degree cameras on the front, rear and exterior mirrors,
One front camera on the top edge of the windscreen,
Four mid-range radar sensors at the vehicle’s corners,
One long-range radar sensor on the front,
One laser scanner on the front, and
One infrared camera (night vision assist) on the front.
The laser scanner in the A8 fans over an area of about 80 meters in
length, according to Audi, with a wide aperture of 145 degrees. Within this
range, the scanner detects the exact contours of objects, even in conditions of
“The special capabilities of the laser scanner and the central
environmental model in the central driver assistance controller benefit the
navigation system, in addition to the Audi AI systems, since the sensor data
merger locates the car to within its exact lane. The driver assistance systems
react to objects with even greater precision and earlier than in the
predecessor model when they detect the end of a traffic backup and initiate
braking, for example,” Audi said.
This is all extremely impressive and most
of us would agree it’s very much the sort of thing cars should have by now, but
it turns out developing automated vehicles is a lot more complex than it
Mikloss Kiss is Audi’s head of advanced
development for automated driving and said right now the industry overall was
at Level Two, preparing to make the leap to Level Three in the very near
“We are really, really close,” he said,
explaining the current technology allowed a car to operated hands off (but not
eyes-off) at speeds up to 60km/h under ideal conditions.
next step is to bring that to hands-free driving on the freeway at 130km/h.”
Level Two technology has obvious
applications in places like Australia, where it’s a long way to anywhere by
road, helping combat driver fatigue – but it’s not an excuse to mentally tune
“If the driver gets drowsy because of a
long boring drive, they won’t drift,” Dr Kiss said.
“But you have to be able to step in in a
second (if something happens).
Dr Kiss explained automated (or
automation-ehnanced) vehicles, including the A8, perceived their surroundings
typically via some combination of LIDAR and/or SONAR, and a camera.
One of the
things that helps the car is a LIDAR (Laser
Instrument Detection And Rangefinding), which works by sending
up to 150,000 laser light pulses each second at a surface. A sensor in the
LIDAR gear detects how long it takes for the pulse to ‘bounce back’ to it, and
uses the information to develop a ‘map’ or image of whatever surface it is
scanning – giving the onboard systems an image of what the car is “seeing”.
Surprisingly, the on-board systems in a
number of automated vehicles – including the A8 – are complemented by
BlackBerry software. While best known for being a big player in early
smartphones, the company now provides “mission critical” software for a range
of companies using systems that absolutely must work, and be updated reliably
and effectively – such as those controlling automated vehicles (or the
information systems in them).
Intel are also heavily involved in
automated vehicles, with their company MobilEye has been developing
high-definition digital maps for smart vehicles to use in China and Korea.
Dr Kiss said alongside the technical
challenges of creating truly autonomous vehicles, there were also the legal
issues – such as who was deemed to be ‘in control’ of an autonomous vehicle if
there was an incident – as well as how the car should react in uncertain
One example he gave was the question over
how an automated car should behave if it is stopped at a traffic light and an
emergency service vehicle approaches with its lights and sirens on – should the automated vehicle move out of the
way to let it through, or stay where it is even if it is blocking the emergency
The reality, Dr Kiss said, was that fully
automated vehicles on roads were decades away at best – although it was
possible we would see vehicles capable of parking themselves in an enclosed
space such as a parking garage in the foreseeable future, as that was an easier
challenge to overcome due to the enclosed and controlled nature of that
The challenges of self-driving cars
continued to expand, he said, with new challenges presenting themselves almost
as soon as existing ones are overcome, and there was a growing realisation it
was likely going to require a concerted and unified effort from car manufacturers,
universities, and technology companies to meet those challenges.
Ultimately, it’s going to be quite some
time before you can let the car handle your daily commute while you pwn some
noobs in whatever game has taken your fancy, it will happen eventually –
although whether it’s in the next decade or longer remains to be seen.
Still, that means plenty of time to
practice your elite gaming skills at home or while someone else drives in the