Accelerating Ahead: Self-Driving Cars

The past week marked an important stage on the road to fully autonomous self-driving cars. Elon Musk, Tesla’s Chairman and C.E.O. announced a significant upgrade to ‘Autopilot’, the car manufacturers’ driver’s assist software. Previously, the radar simply acted as a supplement to its primary camera and image processing system. The software upgrade, Version 8.0, will make use of more advanced signal processing to create a picture of the world using the car’s onboard radar. 

“After careful consideration, we now believe it can be used as a primary control sensor without requiring the camera to confirm visual image recognition. This is a non-trivial and counter-intuitive problem, because of how strange the world looks in radar.” – Elon Musk, Tesla’s Chairman and C.E.O.

The automotive industry is currently undergoing significant changes under the hood and is likely to look radically different within a few years. Many auto and technology companies – from Baidu to Uber to Google – are now spending significant resources on research and development in the autonomous vehicles segment.

Baidu, the Chinese internet company, unveiled its autonomous vehicle in China last December and has since been testing its vehicles on Chinese roads and highways. Meanwhile, it has steadily been increasing its investments and partnerships in the sector. Notably, the $64 billion market cap company has very recently received a permit to test its self-driving cars in California.

Uber too has shifted its focus onto making self-driving cars a reality after years of upending the taxi business around the globe. The company has an extra incentive to get the technology ready given drivers are its biggest cost. Just yesterday, it invited its most loyal Pittsburgh customers to experience the future first. The announcement comes a year-and-a-half after it hired a team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics centre to develop the technology. It naturally believes (like many of its competitors) that the technology will help drastically reduce the number of traffic accidents on the roads today and reduce congestion.

“Of course, we can’t predict exactly what the future will hold. But we know that self-driving Ubers have enormous potential to further our mission and improve society: reducing the number of traffic accidents, which today kill 1.3 million people a year; freeing up the 20 percent of space in cities currently used to park the world’s billion plus cars; and cutting congestion, which wastes trillions of hours every year.” – Uber

Surprisingly, Google has been relatively muted with regards to progress on its self-driving car despite being one of the first to enter the market, aiming to prove its concept altogether. Its Google X project started back in 2009 using Toyota Prius’ on freeways in California and has since racked up more than 1.5 million self-driven miles. The incredible capabilities of Google’s technology can be viewed here in a Ted Talk from last year.

It is clear that the automotive industry will undergo a major overhaul, quite possibly the most extensive since the Ford Model T was introduced in 1908. Given the size of the industry and the potential rewards, no one will want to miss out on the pie. Apple is rumoured to enter the market at some point with ‘Project Titan’  (despite recent setbacks) and of course many of the current incumbents will seek to defend their positions within the industry. Mercedes for example  revealed F 015 prototype (pictured above). If Elon Musk is to be believed, complete autonomy that will be safer than human drivers  “may be less than two years away” but regulations should take “at least another year”. Mark the year on your calendars, it is likely to be unforgettable.