The Driverless Decade: Part I - Land Vehicles

Image by Julien Tromeur from Pixabay

With every new decade comes giant leaps in technology. While we’ve been told that self-driving vehicles were just around the corner for pure ages, it’s probably safe to say that the promise will finally be fulfilled before the close of the 2020s. So over the next month, we’ll be releasing a series of articles in a quadrilogy that looks at how companies are pushing autonomous technology forward in land, air, sea, and space vehicles.  


Truly Self-Driving Cars Are So Close, Yet So Far Away

For years, automakers have been easing drivers into autonomous technology with features like driver assist and self-parking capabilities. Even still, don't expect Level 5, fully autonomous capabilities anytime in the near future. SAE International has designated six levels of driving automation with Level 0 signifying no self-driving capabilities and Level 5 indicating a car that can drive everywhere in all conditions. Considering how far we've come in the last decade, it seems plausible that we’ll reach Level 5 for passenger cars and trucks toward the end of the 2020s. In fact, we’re half-way there. 

Tesla’s much hyped, if not misnamed, Autopilot, is already at Level 2. The vehicles offer advanced driver assistance features like simultaneous lane centering and adaptive cruise control, but still require a human driver at the wheel. The company is constantly maturing and refining its technology which it can push to Tesla vehicles wirelessly, thrilling owners with each new update. 

In attempting to catch up to Tesla, longtime rivals BMW and Daimler are joining forces to develop Level 4 automated driving technologies. These types of arrangements between competitors are becoming de rigueur, as Japan’s Toyota and Suzuki, as well as Ford and Volkswagen have also struck partnerships in order to share the considerable costs of engineering self-driving passenger cars and trucks. 

Retrofits Positioning as an Affordable Alternative

Maybe you already own a vehicle that you enjoy (or paid off), but wished it had some autonomous features. Good news, Ghost Locomotion can help you with that. The startup is developing a kit that will allow car owners to retrofit their vehicles with software and hardware (cameras, sensors) for Level 2 autonomy. Ghost is not alone in their ambitions with Polysync.io developing similar technology and comma.ai already offering a retrofit package for $599. 

Driverless Shuttles Are a No-Brainer

If you think about it, a shuttle is a perfect application for driverless technology. These vehicles typically travel along a set, defined path with predictable regularity. So it makes sense for Volkswagen Group and Qatar to partner on developing a public transit system of autonomous shuttles and buses. The pilot program will see 35 electric driverless shuttles hit the capital city of Doha by 2022.

Optimus Ride, a builder of autonomous mobility systems that spun out of MIT, is set to deliver  Level 4 autonomous shuttles to geofenced locations such as corporate and academic campuses, residential communities, ports, airports, and industrial spaces. Currently, the company is testing its vehicles at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and hopes to remove its safety and research human drivers sometime this year. 

Self-Driving Trucks Will Save Our Economy

According to the American Trucking Association (ATA), trucks move 71.4% of our nation’s freight by weight and 80.3% by gross freight revenues ($796.7 billion). Nearly everything we interact with on a daily basis (food, electronics, clothing) once made a trip in the tractor of a truck. While trucking is undeniably vital to our economy, the industry is facing an unprecedented shortage of truckers as veterans retire with few young people lining up to replace them. The shortage is expected to get considerably worse over the next decade, with the ATA predicting a whopping 160,000 driver positions will go unfilled. 

But fear not, autonomous technology is here to save the day. The long stretches of highway driving performed by most trucks is much easier for self-driving tech to learn and execute compared to the complexities of urban navigation. Trucking companies are already training Level 2 autonomous tech to do the brutal, hours-long hauls that deter younger drivers from entering the industry. These assistance systems may attract new workers to trucking who would only need to takeover steering once the trucks exit the highway. 

Otto, Uber, Autobon AI, Tesla, and Daimler/Peloton are all developing Level 2 features for trucks. And while Level 4/5 autonomous navigation will arrive in the far flung future, experts predict that due to the worker shortage, the tech is far more likely to assist professional drivers rather than replace them. 

Even More Applications for Driverless Vehicles 

Wal-Mart is looking to make delivery of online orders faster using driverless tech. The company has partnered with AI startups Udelv, Nuro, and Gatik AI, to test autonomous grocery delivery. It also collabed with Alphabet’s Waymo on a program that drove online customers to nearby Walmart stores for grocery pickup. 

Speaking of deliveries, FedEx aims to use autonomous same-day robots to get packages to your doorstep. The shipping giant partnered with DEKA Development & Research Corp, which shares the same founder as Segway, to develop a zero-emissions bot that can travel along sidewalks and roads to complete the last mile of deliveries. FedEx is working with Wal-Mart, Pizza Hut, AutoZone, and Target in its pilot program. 

And while the typical person may not spend much time on a farm or in a warehouse, employees in these sectors are already sharing their workspace space with autonomous vehicles designed to make their jobs easier. San Diego-based Brain Corp engineers self-driving floor scrubbers, vacuums, delivery robots, shelf-scanning robots and security robots that can navigate autonomously, avoid obstacles, and adapt to changing environments. And John Deere partnered with AI-powered agriculture intelligence platform maker Taranis to integrate advanced self-driving technology into its tractors. The farming vehicles can plant, spray and harvest entire fields all on their own.

The Beginning of the End

A decade is a long time especially since technology matures at an exponential clip. So as we start the year with companies testing and piloting autonomous technology in land vehicles of all kinds, it’s not a stretch to imagine that the 2020s could be the decade that sees the end of the human driver as we know it.