How Close Are We to a Self-Driving World?


IMAGINE A WORLD WHERE YOU WAKE UP, GRAB YOUR
CUP OF COFFEE, AND HOP IN YOUR CAR TO DRIVE TO WORK… EXCEPT YOU’RE NOT DOING THE DRIVING. YOU HAVE MORE TIME TO SLEEP, READ A BOOK,
OR EVEN GET A PHYSICAL. THIS IS A WORLD WE ALL WANT TO LIVE IN. AND
ALTHOUGH WE’RE NOT QUITE THERE YET, PEOPLE ALL OVER THE WORLD ARE WORKING ON DEVELOPING,
TESTING, AND PLANNING FOR A FUTURE WITH AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES. BECAUSE, WHO DOESN’T WANT THAT EXTRA HOUR
OF SLEEP? SO, HOW CLOSE ARE WE TO A SELF-DRIVING WORLD? YOU MAY HAVE SEEN SELF-DRIVING CARS ON THE
NEWS, SPLASHED ACROSS THE INTERNET, OR EVEN TESTING AROUND YOUR CITY. BUT MOST OF THOSE CARS STILL HAVE A HUMAN
IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT. AND THAT MEANS IT’S PROBABLY A LEVEL 2 OR 3
CAR, WHICH DEFINITELY MORE INDEPENDENT THAN THE CAR YOU MIGHT DRIVE, WHICH IS PROBABLY A LEVEL 0 OR 1, BUT IT’S STILL A FAR CRY FROM OUR DREAM RIDE, WHICH WOULD BE A LEVEL 5. OR 4. LET ME EXPLAIN. SAE INTERNATIONAL HAS DIVIDED AUTONOMY INTO
FIVE STAGES. LEVEL ONE IS “DRIVER ASSISTANCE,” AND
LEVEL TWO IS “PARTIAL AUTOMATION,” WHICH YOU CAN ALREADY FIND
IN CARS WE DRIVE TODAY. HERE, THE CAR CAN DO SOME OF THE STEERING,
BRAKING, AND ACCELERATING, BUT STILL NEEDS A DRIVER WITH HANDS ON THE WHEEL, BECAUSE
LEVELS 1 AND 2 ARE STILL JUST “DRIVER SUPPORT.” So lane keeping, collision warning, even active
interventions that will swerve the vehicle if you’re about to get into an accident. LEVEL THREE IS “CONDITIONAL AUTOMATION,”
WHICH MEANS THAT THE CAR IS PRETTY MUCH IN CONTROL, BUT REQUIRES HUMAN INTERVENTION IN AN EMERGENCY, OR WHEN PROMPTED BY THE SYSTEM. REMEMBER LEVEL THREE, BECAUSE THIS IS WHERE
IT CAN GET STICKY. BUT THE ULTIMATE SELF-DRIVING CAR WOULD BE
OPERATING AT LEVEL 4 OR 5, WHERE IT CAN STEER, BRAKE, ACCELERATE, MONITOR THE ROAD, RESPOND
TO RANDOM EVENTS, CHOOSE TO CHANGE LANES, TURN, AND OF COURSE… USE ITS BLINKER LIKE ANY DECENT CITIZEN. THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD TOWARD SELF-DRIVING
TECHNOLOGY HAS BEEN A WINDING ONE. DR. DEAN POMERLEAU HAS BEEN NAVIGATING IT FOR
A LONG TIME. YOU COULD CALL HIM THE GRANDFATHER, OR AT
LEAST THE COOL UNCLE, OF AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES. BACK IN 1995, DEAN AND HIS GRADUATE STUDENT
MADE A PILGRIMAGE ACROSS THE COUNTRY “LOOK MA, NO HANDS”-STYLE, AFTER THEY TRICKED
OUT A STYLISH MINIVAN WITH CAMERAS AND COMPUTER VISION ALGORITHMS. About 98.2% of the trip, as I recall, was
hands-off, feet-off, with the system controlling the vehicle all on its own. It was a proof of concept, basically, for
some of the technologies that we’re seeing finally being deployed today. IN THE YEARS THAT FOLLOWED, RESEARCH TEAMS
COMPETED TO DEVELOP THAT TECHNOLOGY FURTHER. IT WASN’T UNTIL 2005, AFTER SOME… CATASTROPHIC FAILURES, THAT DARPA’S GRAND
CHALLENGE TO BUILD A SELF-DRIVING CAR FINALLY AWARDED FIRST PLACE TO A STANFORD TEAM, LED
BY SEBASTIAN THRUN. YEAH, YOU MIGHT’VE SEEN HIM AROUND. FAST FORWARD TO 2009, WHEN HE STARTS A LITTLE
PROJECT CALLED WAYMO. IN SECRET. IN 2016, WAYMO SPINS OFF FROM GOOGLE, AND
IN A FEW SHORT YEARS, THE INDUSTRY’S ERUPTED, WITH ESTABLISHED TECH AND CAR COMPANIES JUST
AS EAGER AS STARTUPS TO GET IN ON THE ACTION. Waymo is probably the recognized leader. GM bought Cruise Automation; Argo AI here
in Pittsburgh is one leading player; BMW Mercedes, are all working on their own projects
for self-driving cars. It remains to be seen whether it’s a good
investment or not. FOR THAT INVESTMENT TO PAY OFF, DRIVERLESS
TECHNOLOGY MUST BE REFINED TO THE POINT WHERE IT’S BOTH RELIABLE AND FLEXIBLE ENOUGH TO HANDLE A COMPLEX JOURNEY. THAT MEANS SOPHISTICATED SENSORS, ROBUST COMPUTER HARDWARE, AND INTELLIGENT DECISION-MAKING SOFTWARE. TO START WITH, AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES RELY ON SOMETHING NOT ALL HUMAN DRIVERS ARE EQUIPPED WITH: A SENSE OF DIRECTION. The companies that are building these self-driving
cars build their own maps. Very much like Google has its street-view
cars that drive through neighborhoods and collect map data, they have another fleet
with many additional sensors to drive through a city and map it in great detail –static
obstacles, like telephone poles or the curbs around the road, that it should be aware of
and avoid. BUT TO BE TRULY ADAPTIVE, THE CAR NEEDS TO
BE ABLE TO GATHER REAL-TIME INFORMATION ABOUT A DYNAMIC, UNPREDICTABLE ENVIRONMENT. ELON MUSK THINKS WE CAN ACCOMPLISH THIS WITH
CAMERAS ALONE. BUT IF YOU’VE EVER TAKEN A SELFIE IN THE
CLUB, YOU KNOW THAT CAMERAS PROBABLY AREN’T GOING TO CUT IT, BECAUSE THEY STILL STRUGGLE
WITH DARKNESS, DEPTH, AND REFLECTIONS. So self-driving-car companies are investigating
many different sensors, for example, millimeter wave radars for long-range sensing, and short-range,
often ultrasound, sensors that see things that are very close to the vehicle. LiDAR is probably the most common and most
impressive technology currently being used. LiDAR is a laser-based technology that shoots
a laser beam out into the environment, scans it very quickly, and detects the range to
objects and other vehicles. LiDARs are both a great sensor but also a
weak link; they’re very expensive and break down fairly often. AND THIS HAS BEEN A MAJOR ROADBLOCK TO FULLY
AUTONOMOUS ROADS. LIDAR HAS HUGE POTENTIAL, BUT IT’S JUST
TOO DELICATE AT THE MOMENT, BECAUSE IT’S MADE UP OF FRAGILE, MOVING PARTS. BUT SOMETHING CALLED SOLID-STATE LIDAR, WHICH SCANS THE ENVIRONMENT USING NO MOVING PARTS COULD CHANGE ALL THAT. AND THESE SENSORS, WHILE IN THEIR INFANCY,
ARE IN SUCH DEMAND THAT MANUFACTURERS LITERALLY CAN’T MAKE THEM FAST ENOUGH TO SUPPLY THE
DEMANDS OF COMPANIES LIKE FORD AND BAIDU. It’s much more reliable and also much cheaper
to manufacture, which is very important if you’re going to do this at scales on thousands
of vehicles. OKAY, SO SAY WE CAN BUILD A DRIVING ROBOT. THAT IS, AN ENTITY THAT CAN PERCEIVE ITS ENVIRONMENT, JUDGE, AND ACT ON THE ROAD BASED ON A COMPLEX NETWORK OF REAL-TIME DATA ANALYSIS. IN A WAY, IT’S STILL ONLY PREPARED TO DRIVE
ON A MAP. TO BE ABLE TO NAVIGATE IN THE REAL WORLD,
AND SHARE THE ROAD, AND THE STEERING WHEEL, WITH HUMAN DRIVERS, WE’LL NEED TO TAKE IT
TO DRIVER’S ED. Some of the biggest safety concerns are involved
with perception and behavior of drivers or pedestrians or cyclists. Slushy roads covered with ice and snow are
very hard to cope with, and there’s really been very little effort or progress in self-driving
cars in these very challenging environments. TO MAKE THAT PROGRESS, WE HAVE TO STUDY HOW
HUMAN DRIVERS ACTUALLY RESPOND – BOTH TO RISKY ROAD CONDITIONS, AND TO AUTONOMY ITSELF. SO TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE HUMAN IN THE
WHOLE EQUATION, WE HEADED TO STANFORD’S AUTOMOTIVE INNOVATION LAB. We are working together to really get a detailed
understanding of the human as we move forward in designing active safety systems
and automated vehicles. So, we’re gonna set up this NIRS cap on her right now. It will be shining a little bit of infrared
light onto her motor cortex. We’ll be able to see as she’s turning left,
turning right, using the gas pedal and the brake pedal, all in our data streams back
there. The majority of accidents that we do see do
come down to human error in either recognition, decision, or performance. So when we can get to the point where the
system does a better job at those three things than humans, then I think it’s clear that
our roads will be safer. This is X-1, our experimental test vehicle. The flexibility in steering allows us to set
up all sorts of experiments. We can emulate driving on
an unexpected change of friction. Going from snow to ice, for example. There are studies going on in the dynamic
design lab, measuring the inputs that professional drivers make, so that we can try and understand
what they’re doing differently to drive right at the limits of the vehicle. We can use that
to inform the way that the autonomous vehicle control algorithms are designed, so that hopefully,
your autonomous vehicle will drive as well as the very best human driver. LENE’S MOST RECENT PROJECT INVESTIGATED
A SCENARIO THAT MIGHT POP UP IN SOMETHING LIKE LEVEL 3 AUTONOMY, WHERE THE CAR’S BEEN
ROLLING SOLO WHEN SUDDENLY, IT ENCOUNTERS SOME SCENARIO IT CAN’T MAKE SENSE OF, AND
THE HUMAN DRIVER IS ASKED TO INTERVENE. What our studies of brain and behavior tell
us is that it’s important to consider a period of time when people’s driving behavior may
be significantly different if they’ve taken control of a vehicle after a certain amount
of time out of the loop. We can see almost in real time the cognitive
resources being deployed. They may have more limited cognitive resources to deal with an
emergency situation under those conditions. It’s potentially a quite dangerous situation
if you’re handing off control back and forth with the system. THOUGH IT MAY SEEM EXTREME FOR CONSUMERS TO
MAKE THE JUMP FROM CRUISING AROUND IN A LEVEL 1 CAR TO HOPPING IN A FULLY AUTONOMOUS ONE, MANY RESEARCHERS AGREE
THAT PARTIAL AUTONOMY SHOULD ONLY BE RESERVED FOR TESTING PURPOSES. AND UNFORTUNATELY, MOST OF THE
ACCIDENTS THAT HAVE ALREADY OCCURRED HAVE PROVEN THEM RIGHT. I think the next five years or so of autonomous
vehicle design is actually going to focus more on the ways in which we can implement
full autonomy in a much smaller, more controlled environment, and sort of do it that way rather
than necessarily going through this partial autonomy stage to get there. People are easily distractible, and that’s
the underlying problem that autonomous vehicles are setting out to solve. So NACTO cities believe that it needs to be
really full automation to achieve the safety benefits that are the major promise behind
autonomous vehicles. THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF CITY TRANSPORTATION OFFICIALS REPRESENTS 68 CITIES AND 11 TRANSIT AGENCIES ACROSS NORTH AMERICA. NACTO RECENTLY CONVENED TO DISCUSS HOW THE
WORLD WILL PREPARE FOR FULLY AUTONOMOUS CARS TO BECOME A REALITY. It’s unrealistic to expect city governments
to redesign streets to accommodate autonomous vehicles. THIS MEANS, WHEN SELF-DRIVING CARS DO HIT
THE ROAD, THEY’LL NEED TO TRAVEL AT LOW SPEEDS, AND MAKE USE OF OUR EXISTING INFRASTRUCTURE. BECAUSE OVER THE PAST CENTURY, WE’VE MADE
COUNTLESS COMPROMISES TO ACCOMMODATE THE SHINY NEW TECHNOLOGY OF THE TIME… THE AUTOMOBILE. BUT URBAN PLANNERS THINK WE CAN DO BETTER
THIS TIME AROUND. We’ve seen neighborhoods cut off from opportunities,
we’ve seen congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, decreases in public health… we
risk repeating a lot of those same mistakes with autonomous vehicles. The Bblueprint for Autonomous Urbanism came
about because we were seeing too many visions for driverless cars in a people-less city. The Blueprint is imagining how cities can
structure their streets to prioritize walking and biking and transit and public space, to
really maximize those benefits of living and being in a city, while using autonomous vehicles
to help achieve those goals. THE IMAGES YOU SEE HERE ARE JUST SKETCHES
AND SUGGESTIONS FOR THE FUTURE. THE REALITY IS, REGULATION FOR THESE KINDS
OF VEHICLES IS PRETTY NEW – AND IT’S DIFFERENT IN EVERY STATE. BUT PLANNERS AND TRANSPORTATION OFFICIALS
LARGELY AGREE ON THE NEED FOR EQUAL ACCESS, SAFETY, AND SUSTAINABILITY. It requires really thoughtful and intentional
policies to make that vision and that promise a reality. SO, HUMANS ARE ADAPTABLE LEARNERS. AND WE’RE DESIGNING SYSTEMS THAT CAN WORK
THAT WAY TOO. BUT ON A GRANDER SCALE, WE AS A SOCIETY HAVE
TO BE WILLING TO ASSESS RISK, AND STEER IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION BEFORE WE CHANGE LANES
AND CHARGE FULL SPEED AHEAD. SO… HOW CLOSE ARE WE TO A DRIVERLESS WORLD? If you look at particular geographical locations,
it’s already happening. Over time, I believe that those islands will
grow in number and expand, and that’s how you will see the expansion of fully automated
vehicles on the road. I think in the next year or two we will see
companies like Waymo and GM Cruise deploying maybe a few hundred of these vehicles for
the general public to ride in. Probably by early 2020s, we’ll see cars without
drivers giving rides and then driving empty to pick up the next passenger. It’ll be probably at least a decade, I would
say, before you can walk into a showroom and buy a car at an affordable price that can
do, say, level four or five autonomy, which means you don’t have to do anything. The fact that Waymo’s CEO said we’re still
quite a ways off makes me think that that’s probably true. But in the near term, I think there are some
applications, especially for transit, to use autonomous technology to achieve some of our goals. Access to affordable, convenient transportation
is really important. We all have a grandparent or a friend of our
grandparents who had to give up driving and lost a lot of their independence. I think it can change lives and save lives
across the board as long as we take into consideration everyone across the spectrum as we as a society
move forward with automated vehicles. SOUNDS LIKE AS LONG AS WE TAKE CARE OF SOME
POTHOLES FIRST… WE’VE GOT A GREEN LIGHT. TO MAKE SURE YOU NEVER MISS AN EPISODE, DON’T
FORGET TO SUBSCRIBE. AND FOR MORE HOW CLOSE ARE WE? CHECK OUT THIS PLAYLIST HERE. THANKS FOR WATCHING AND I’LL SEE YOU NEXT
TIME ON SEEKER.

About the Author: Michael Flood

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