In 2002, I was one of the many people who saw the Tom Cruise film ‘Minority Report’ in theaters. Of the countless technologies predicted in the Steven Spielberg film, one of the most impactful was the normalcy with which they depicted self-driving cars.
Hardly a new concept, it seems to grow more appealing with each day that passes. Like it or not, our society is growing more connected (and inherently more distracted). I am uncomfortable letting my 12-year old daughter ride her bike on main streets, out of fear that I am putting her at risk from motorists who are unable to put their phone down. All the while, I had been riding my bike up to ten miles from home by the time I was her age. Could ‘smart’ vehicles be the answer? If the options are (i) create and standardize this technology or (ii) grow increasingly frustrated with an inability to enforce protective legislation, I am just one of many people who would vote for the former. Truly a case of ‘work smarter, not harder’ the advent of smart technology, creates a very real (albeit intimidating) opportunity for change.
But how close are we?
Closer Than You May Think
And they are becoming progressively visible. In fact, all drivers should start adapting to the idea that autonomous vehicles will be integrated into daily traffic within our lifetime. That’s right. Most of us will live to see the day when self-driving cars begin to become the norm.
Granted, this will not happen overnight. But until the day comes when the masses are presented with a commercially-viable, affordable autonomous driving vehicle, you can expect both speculation and actual developments to be omnipresent in current auto news.
After all, this is what we’ve been building towards since the inception of futuristic science fiction writings and films. The idea that a vehicle (of any kind) could operate, in any capacity, without a human pilot would spark many imaginations over the last 150 years. And like many staples of science fiction, these ideas would fuel real-world innovation. In this case, it would inspire the 1914 creation of a rudimentary autopilot system for airplanes. The fire would then be stoked again thirty years later with the creation of autonomous Cruise Control.
Inspiring generations of automotive engineers, these leaps would bring us to many of today’s motor vehicle technologies. The existence of offerings such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure mitigation, and assistive parking serves as confirmation that we are witnessing such ‘dreams’ in their infancy. We are already experiencing these features becoming standard in all new model year offerings. We can expect them to evolve; in fact, we should. Over time, they will become connective, enabling vehicles to ‘speak’ to one another, ensuring the safety of their respective passengers. Combined with the prevalence of satellite GPS technology, voice recognition software and the Wi-Fi soup that we call our existence, it becomes easy to see where we’re headed. Just jump in the car, and tell it where to go.
If autonomous driving is a sign of the future, well… The future is closer than we ever imagined.
One of the front-runners in autonomous driving technology is Magna, a premier automotive supplier working with a number of automakers. Their familiarity with various OEM platforms empowers Magna to visualize how a single autonomous technology could be made compatible with a wider-range of vehicles on the road. The result is called MAX4 and, with nearly two decades of research and development behind it, could very well become the future of driving.
Defined as a ‘level four autonomous system’ MAX4 enables a vehicle to reach any destination, as commanded by the driver, using GPS technology. Initiated with the push of a button, and deactivated as easily with the tap of the brake, or accelerator, the technology feels very much like the next generation of Cruise Control.
Once in motion, the vehicle uses a number of combined technologies to operate both accurately and safely. Ultrasonic sensors, radar, LiDAR and real-time cameras provide the system with real-time data on everything, ranging from omnidirectional traffic to street-sign recognition. Fully-adaptable, the software is as efficient in a high-intensity urban landscape, as it in on high-speed highways or more relaxed rural driving.
Inspired by their familiarity with multiple automakers, Magna has designed the system to be ‘processor neutral’. This means that the core technology can be adapted, operating seamlessly with any automaker’s proprietary technology.
From Ford to Alfa Romeo, imagine all automakers integrating such technologies. If it seems far-fetched, think back to a world without Bluetooth. It wasn’t that long ago.
Understanding that autonomous driving reflects the natural evolution of existing technologies, how might other existing technologies change how we drive?
Many leaders in technology feel that a sense of ‘mandatory car ownership’ may diminish with time. App-based rideshare services such as UBER provide a compelling argument for their belief; as does the increasing prevalence of City-Bike services within Metropolitan areas.
If we accept the likelihood of a world where vehicles operate autonomously, it becomes easy to imagine an UBER-esque app that would allow people to select a make, model and have it arrive at your doorstep. Perhaps you would choose a more economical vehicle for your daily commute, but for a special night out or vacation, you might spring for something a little fancier. While it may seem far-fetched at first, it becomes easy to picture it when you think of it as an extension of existing technologies.
But Are We Ready?
The answer is no.
Such large-scale changes will take time, as well as new legislation and means of enforcement. While it is likely that we’ll see autonomous driving cars on roads in our lifetimes, even our great-grandchildren may not see a full transition away from manual driving.
But as we’ve learned (and seen more often in recent years) technology will lead. Magna is just one manufacturer working on this technology and I, for one, will be watching with great interest to see where their collective minds bring us.