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Autonomous Vehicles: Will they be a radical transformation, or are we seeing a more gentle evolution to a safer and more enjoyable future?

January 28, 2013

Occasionally you will see a news article that manages to catch the spirit of a transformation that is stealthy but irrevocably changing our society. I think I saw one of those articles this morning (

Over the past decades we have seen a radical transformation in the way that commercial airlines are flown with pilots now being “supervisory controllers” with much of the flying being done automatically by the aircraft. And surprise, surprise, when we move humans outside the loop and let them focus on the things that they are good at, we generally get safer aviation. Of course you don’t want people too far out of the loop, because when something fails (e.g., a speed indicator goes out) you want them to know enough not to let the aircraft go into a stall with catastrophic results.

For some years now the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been sponsoring research on autonomous vehicles. And in the past few years Google has also been running a well-publicized autonomous vehicles programme. But if you look at the recent evolution of cars, it is clear that the machinery is already taking over more and more of the detailed control of the vehicle. Cars have been evolving rapidly over the past few years. We’ve had cruise control for a long time, but here are some of the new technologies that are coming down the turnpike:

Already here for some cars:

• Driver fatigue/distraction alert
• Cruise control/adaptive cruise control
• Forward collision avoidance
• Automatic braking
• Automated parking
• Adaptive headlights
• Traffic sign detection

• Antilock brakes
• Lane keeping and lane departure warning
• Pedestrian detection

And here is stuff that is on its way:

• Traffic jam assistance
• Night assistance thermal imaging
• Intersection assistance
• Traffic light detection

Other stuff that is on its way includes vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2X) communications technologies which “can aid advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) by helping “extend a vehicle’s field of vision,” according to Benjamin Oberkersch, PR officer for Daimler AG and simTD, the firm’s V2X field test project.” ( “V2X will provide information on conditions farther afield — such as that traffic jam around a curve 5 km away — while there’s still time to act.”

Another high end advance is “super cruise control” with one version being worked on for General Motors’ Cadillac line of vehicles. This is billed as part of an effort to “semi-automate” the driving experience (think almost Knight Rider or the Jetsons, but not quite). Here’s a short video on adaptive cruise control and lane keeping.

PastedGraphic 1

According to the New York Times article, Carnegie Mellon’s Autonomous Cadillac SRX can drive itself on public roads, detect and stop for pedestrians, and communicate with traffic signals–among other things–“all while looking very normal”. In other words, like aliens, autonomous vehicles may already be amongst us!

There’s a really interesting version of the CMU autonomous car driving itself embedded in the New York Times article.


One of the nice things about this technology is that the car talks to you, e.g. “caution, entering construction zone” so you can decide whether to take over. Naturally the car relies on a lot of imaging and mapping technology and you can get a sense of some of it from the following graphic taken from the video.


And not to be outdone, Stanford University also has an autonomous vehicle research programme. The Stanford connection has also been strengthened by the fact that ten automakers have located advanced research laboratories in Silicon Valley. The most recent one was established by Ford Motors in Mountain View, Calif., in June.

Here are some other interesting excerpts from the New York Times article.

“Four manufacturers — Volvo, BMW, Audi and Mercedes — have announced that as soon as this year they will begin offering models that will come with sensors and software to allow the car to drive itself in heavy traffic at speeds up to 37 miles per hour. The systems, known as Traffic Jam Assist, will follow the car ahead and automatically slow down and speed up as needed, handling both braking and steering.”

“People don’t realize that when you step on antilock brakes it’s simply a suggestion for the car to stop,” said Clifford Nass, a director at the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford. How and when the car stops is left to the system.”

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently reported that one system, electronic stability control, or E.S.C., which digitally detects the loss of traction and compensates automatically, saved 2,202 lives from 2008 to 2010. Federal safety regulations began phasing in electronic stability control on small trucks and passenger vehicles in 2007.”

“In time, as society becomes more comfortable and legal concerns are ironed out, full autonomy will become practical, inevitable and necessary.”

So what is it, evolution or revolutions? A bit of both perhaps. We are having a kind of punctuated evolution where a series of advances are producing a rapidly evolving car. And eventually a tipping point will be reached where it will seem safer to let cars be driven autonomously. At that stage it will be up to the policy makers and politicians to figure out how to draft a new set of driving laws appropriately. That should be a really interesting process to watch, and especially in how it plays out in different countries.

And as for me, well it’s ironic in some ways that I’m interested in the future of driving. I live in the downtown of a large city and I don’t even own a car. I use a car sharing and a bike sharing programme, and when I’m not walking around I’ll occasionally use transit. But be that as it may, the future of transportation is a fascinating topic and the car will continue to evolve.

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