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All You Need to Know About Autonomous Vehicles

Apr 27, 2021 11:06 AM 6 min read

Last Saturday, a Tesla Model S smashed into a tree in Texas, killing its two occupants. The car, reportedly driving at a high speed, failed to negotiate a bend and collided before bursting into flames.

It’s still unclear whether the vehicle's Autopilot or Full Self-Driving (FSD) mode was enabled before the crash. CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the vehicle in question was not part of the FSD programme. But officials say they are "99.9% sure" that there was no one at the wheel of the vehicle and witnesses have corroborated by stating that the two deceased told a friend they would test-drive the vehicle without a driver to show “how it can drive itself”.

While this is not the first instance of a fatal car crash involving a driverless vehicle, it does shed more light on the challenges faced (and opportunities promised) by the up-and-coming autonomous vehicle industry, one that has often been touted as the inevitable future of transportation.

What are Autonomous Vehicles?

Simply put, they are vehicles built to sense and gauge their environment, make decisions based on what they "see" or perceive, and operate without any human involvement.

Some of them may require a degree of human assistance, such as a human driver ready to take the wheels should something go wrong. The US-based Society of Automotive Engineers defines six levels of driving automation ranging from Level 0 (fully manual) to Level 5 (fully autonomous).

FYI: The terms “self-driving”, “automated” and “autonomous” are often used interchangeably. However, they are technically not all the same. “Self-driving” or “automated” vehicles are those that can execute a predefined task with minimal or emergency human assistance only. On the other hand, “autonomous” vehicles are fully independent, capable of mimicking human behaviour on the road, and able to compensate for emergency system failures without the need for human intervention. Basically, “autonomous” vehicles are the more advanced brethren of “automated” ones.


How Do Autonomous Vehicles Work?

They use sensors to map their surroundings, cameras to detect traffic lights or read road signs, lidar sensors to measure distances, ultrasonic sensors to detect curbs and nearby vehicles, and software that processes all these inputs to map paths, steer, avoid obstructions, identify pedestrians, control speed, follow traffic rules etc.

Basically a complicated mishmash of sophisticated technologies to deliver a hopefully better than human driving experience, without a human sitting behind the wheel!


A Brief History of Vehicular Time

Autonomous vehicles may seem like a recent obsession with futuristic technology. However, their history can be traced back centuries, to the days of Leonardo da Vinci who designed a self-driving cart (well, sort of). Experiments have been conducted on self-driving cars since at least the 1920s.

But R&D took off in a big way only after the 1980s, boosted by increasing state funding, liberalising market forces and rising middle-class demand. The difference is that now they don’t appear like a distant possibility - the era of robo-vehicles is already here.

Billed as the world's first driverless vehicle, the ParkShuttle began operations in the Netherlands in 1999. In 2015, Roborace, the first global car-racing championship for autonomous vehicles, was launched. Regulatory bottlenecks also loosened gradually as more jurisdictions allowed companies to test their prototypes on public roads.

Since the 2010s, the robo-race has expanded as more automakers began researching and testing their autonomous products. General Motors, Ford, Tesla, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Nissan, Toyota, BMW… There’s virtually no auto giant not dipping its toes in this field. Big tech firms like Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, Uber and Apple are heavily invested as well.

In 2020, Alphabet-owned Waymo became the first self-driving commercial service to operate without safety backup drivers. The company began offering robo-taxi rides to the general public in Phoenix, Arizona. More recently, Tesla began the aforementioned FSD programme with a small group of testers in the US last year. And last month, Honda began leasing self-driving tech-equipped Legend Hybrid EX sedans after acquiring safety certifications from the Japanese government.

FYI: "Autonomous vehicles" don't only mean driverless cars. Vehicles programmed to perform a certain task sans human presence, let alone involvement, are also included. Under this definition, many autonomous vehicles are already functional - think mining haulage systems or drones.

(Not to forget, autonomous vehicles have been an enduring aspect of popular culture, from Mickey Mouse to Jurassic Park to Minority Report!)


Autonomous Vehicles - Benefits

Needless to say, autonomous tech has immense potential for immense disruption. Many analysts opine that its adoption is no longer a matter of if but when. And once the driverless future settles in, the entire transportation industry would be turned upside-down.

When it comes to the benefits of driverless tech, the numbers add up. The removal of human error can greatly decrease road accidents (-90%), thereby saving lives (possibly millions), and improve traffic flow (+35%). Autonomous vehicles on the road could also mean reduced vehicular emissions (-80%) and a cut in maintenance costs (-40%).

All in all, autonomous tech could add a mouth-watering $7trn to the global economy by 2050 (whether you’ll be able to afford such a car anytime soon is another question). Their emergency is also inevitable - after all, the only direction technological progress can take is up! (Well, allegedly.)


Autonomous Vehicles - Challenges

The auto industry is built on countless drivers, gas stations, truckers, drive-throughs etc. These jobs would be in jeopardy in a driverless future. Millions could be left behind without requisite re-skilling.

There are also technical challenges. Lidar tech is not perfect when it comes to balancing range and resolution, especially when multiple autonomous vehicles are on the same road. The technology is also not yet foolproof - it could be affected by adverse weather conditions, bridges or tunnels (or the chaotic daily mayhem of the typical Indian city, for that matter). Moreover, human drivers often rely on non-verbal cues from other drivers or pedestrians to make split-second judgement calls. How perfectly can AI replace this?

Neither are autonomous vehicles 100% safe. Besides Saturday’s unfortunate accident involving the Tesla Model S, there are many more examples of such incidents involving Waymo, Uber and Navya, among others. This also brings to question - who is responsible when a driverless car crashes? Which is both a philosophical and legal conundrum.


Around the World in an Autonomous Car

Now, driverless vehicles promise to bring about a paradigm shift in the auto industry. As such, regulations need to be put in place to ensure safety, privacy and accountability. While these vehicles are running in only a handful of pockets around the world, many countries have already come up with rules to prepare for their public roll-out.

When it comes to government-level discourse, the leaders are Australia, Canada, China, Germany, New Zealand, the UK and the US (in the US, the rules are state-specific, there is no federal legislation yet).

If we look at India, the Government has unequivocally stated that driverless cars would not be introduced in India, citing heavy job losses for the 40 lakh drivers employed in the sector currently. Unemployment and reskilling costs aside, Indian roads can hardly be considered conducive for autonomous tech. Moreover, with the pandemic having dented a gaping hole in the consumer's pockets and the government's coffers, there is little appetite for high-priced cars or R&D adventurism right now.

But the fact of the matter is that driverless tech is knocking on our doors. In some countries, 25% of vehicles on the road may be autonomous within this decade. Within the Indian context, things may also not just be a matter of productivity but also cost. As Daniel Susskind in his book “A World Without Work” says:

“Consider this: if you walk through a Moroccan souk today, you may come across craftsmen sitting on the floor and whittling away at pieces of wood using a lathe held between their feet. This is not entirely for show. Because their labour is so cheap, it still makes economic sense for them to continue with their traditional craft...rather than take up any automated tools.”

India’s drivers may be like the Moroccan wood workers. At least for now.


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