The Genesis of Autonomous Vehicles
It’s almost impossible to avoid the many recent car commercials advertising the latest innovations developed to reduce driver workload and increase safety. Equally common are news stories foretelling the day when drivers will have little else to do behind the wheel than check their iPhones. Indeed, no longer the material of science fiction, auto manufacturers and technology companies are hard at work to ensure that the autonomous vehicle becomes a reality; however, the genesis of this trend began many years ago and has been steadily gaining momentum ever since. Consider for example the automotive electrical system. Early systems had barely enough electrical capacity to blink a spark plug; however, batteries and electronics were soon commonplace, and with them came the foundation for virtually all future technological advances.
The tide toward autonomy began shifting with manufacturers developing electronically-controlled comfort features such as power windows, seats, and door locks; climate control; and entertainment systems. Though doing little to automate the driving experience, these systems provided manufacturers the technological foundation for those that do. Perhaps the first such system was cruise control. In fact, a strong argument can be made that this system was truly the first real step to vehicle autonomy. Although requiring operator engagement, adjustment, and cancellation, once set, early cruise control systems became one of the first systems to relieve the operator of a significant portion of driving demand.
Several vehicle generations later, the second such system appeared: the anti-lock braking system (ABS). While perhaps not immediately recognized as a system of autonomy, ABS operates under the basic premise that ideal braking performance cannot be achieved within the limitations of human perception and reaction. This is because ideal braking occurs when the tires are allowed to “slip” in a controlled fashion rather than completely lock. Controlling wheel slip only occurs when the tires are locked and released very rapidly – several times a second, in fact – much faster than human response times. Factor in the very real benefit of maintaining steering control during maximum braking, and ABS soon became an industry standard.
Next to follow the evolutionary path to autonomy was external sensors. First came reverse proximity sensors alerting drivers of objects within their path, then cameras, then forward, and side-looking devices, all with alert capabilities. But manufacturers have recently begun an important shift in how these sensors are used. Rather than providing a simple alert to the driver, they now can provide a direct input into the already-automated speed and brake control systems. For example, rather than simply sounding the warning device, these proximity sensors can be used to remove the accelerator input, and apply the brake. In fact, the most recent systems employ electronic, self-actuating steering systems allowing vehicles to control essentially all of the basic driving demands. Adding these systems together into one vehicle results in a sophisticated product that is aware of its surroundings and that can adjust to them automatically.
While it may have taken 100 years or so to achieve the advancements witnessed during nearly every current car commercial, and it may take a decade or two or three to achieve the full vision these commercials inspire, two things are certain: whether known or not, the automotive industry has been traveling the road to vehicle autonomy since its birth, and it continues to do so for the foreseeable future.