How Automotive OEMs Are Getting Ready for the Driverless Vehicle

July 20, 2015  |  By John Jasper  |       

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Most consumers may not realize it yet, but driverless vehicles are coming fast and furious. According to predictions by ABI Research, fully autonomous vehicles will start appearing on roads in about 10 to 15 years, and most OEMs predict they’ll be here even sooner. Of course, any automaker knows this evolution didn’t happen overnight; most automotive and technology companies have been researching these “cars of the future” for decades.

Here’s how automotive OEMs are getting ready for the driverless vehicle:

Developing Driver Assist Technologies

These days, it’s not uncommon to find sophisticated driver assistance technologies inside almost every luxury vehicle, and some lower-end models, too. MarketWatch reports that nearly 170 of this year’s models have adaptive cruise control, one of the most common driver assistance features. And according to Navigant Research, “the proportion of vehicles sold worldwide with some degree of autonomous capability is expected to reach 75 percent by 2035.” To aid in the development of these technologies, many OEMs have opened research centers dedicated solely to autonomous vehicles.

A prime example of a semi-autonomous vehicle in today’s market is the Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan. According to Mercedes, “Today's S-Class literally looks ahead, and 360 degrees around, to spot hazards in your path. A team of standard and optional systems can alert the driver, assist in braking, and even respond autonomously to help avoid collisions with other vehicles and pedestrians.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s formal classification system, cars like the S-Class represent Level 2, meaning at least two driver assist controls can be automated in unison. At Level 4, a vehicle is considered fully autonomous. Whether consumers realize it or not, today’s driver assistance features are gradually conditioning them to accept -- and trust -- the driverless vehicles of the future.

Forging Joint Partnerships

As the application of advanced driver assist technologies expands, OEMs and Tier-1 suppliers are forging partnerships with research institutions to speed development. In 2007, General Motors worked with Carnegie Mellon University to develop its “Boss” Chevrolet Tahoe, which won that year’s DARPA Urban Challenge. The Department of Defense-sponsored competition required teams to build driverless vehicles that could perform complex maneuvers amid traffic in an urban environment.

Automakers are also partnering with hi-tech companies like Google, which operates a fleet of Lexus RX450h SUVs equipped with autonomous driving features. Google itself has assembled a team of global suppliers, including Bosch and LG Electronics, to help bring self-driving cars to market.

Anticipating Laws and Regulations

Driverless cars brings a slew of legal and safety issues that are unprecedented today. Laws around the world must be updated to make it legal for automated cars to drive on the road. Who’s to blame if an autonomous vehicle crashes into another? Is the OEM liable? Or does blame lay with the maker of the autonomous technology? Does the driver still carry any liability?

While these are not questions OEMs and Tier-1 suppliers can immediately answer, they are certainly anticipating them. Through working groups like the worldwide Informal Working Group on Intelligent Transport Systems/Automated Driving, automakers are discussing how to address these topics and work with governments on regulations.

Testing for Operations and Safety

The final step in preparing for driverless cars is actually getting them out on the road for testing. The DARPA Urban Challenge is an example of testing in a controlled environment. Google, on the other hand, is employing more realistic testing with a gaggle of autonomous vehicles based on the Toyota Prius and Lexus RX. These cars have been driving around the San Francisco Bay Area for more than five years now, largely without incident. California is one of just a few U.S. states legally allowing driverless car testing on public roads.

To get around that issue, the University of Michigan recently completed construction of a 32-acre facility dubbed “M City” to test connected and automated vehicle systems. The mock city includes a network of roads with up to five lanes, intersections, traffic signs, streetlights, sidewalks, simulated buildings, parked cars, and even pedestrians and obstacles like construction barriers.

Topics: Autonomous/Driverless Cars

John Jasper

John is the President and COO of Abalta Technologies. Abalta Technologies, Inc. is an emerging leader in the connected car landscape. Abalta has developed an innovative platform to enable car companies, automotive electronic firms and tier 1 suppliers to bridge the gap between the smartphone and the car’s infotainment system.

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