The race to build self-driving cars is widely seen as a race between technology companies and legacy auto manufacturers. And with good reason - both industries have either built much-anticipated prototypes or have decades of auto manufacturing experience.
And yet, there is ample reason to believe that the biggest advances in autonomous vehicles will not come out of their labs or design studios. The systems that propel the auto industry into the next phase could just as likely emerge from small companies that none of us know, or haven’t even been launched yet.
The history of the auto industry is full of examples in which many of the technologies and safety features we’ve come to expect in our cars were developed outside the traditional auto ecosystem.
A retired industrial engineering technician patented the first prototype for modern airbags in the early 1950s, some three decades before they were widely adopted by carmakers. Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz were among the first to offer anti-lock brakes, but suppliers such as Bendix and Bosch were instrumental in developing the technology. The list goes on and on.
A similar dynamic is almost certain to play out as we move to develop autonomous vehicles. The biggest names are moving quickly, but for all their achievements, there are plenty of problems yet to be solved. For example, self-driving prototypes use a combination of cameras and lasers to replicate what people do behind the wheel, but what will happen when field of sight is impaired by snow, fog or heavy rain? Standard mapping and GPS technology is still not precise enough to rely on in such situations, so the systems must shut down and revert to human control. Eventually, self-driving cars will have complementary and redundant systems to ensure safety is not compromised in the event primary and secondary systems fail.
Paradigm shifts such as this typically favor the upstarts over incumbents, and we can expect to see an entirely new ecosystem of companies establish themselves as leading automakers, or more likely, the new tier 1 suppliers.
The technical challenges going forward fall into two main categories:
Sensor-based technologies: Systems known as Advanced Driver Assist Systems (ADAS) enable cars to monitor and respond to their surroundings via a combination of advanced sensors, such as stereo cameras and long- and short-range RADAR, as well as actuators and control units. Other systems will monitor performance and identify when a vehicle is operating outside normal parameters due to system failure. The challenge going forward will be to enhance these systems by marrying them with predictive analytics, so that the cars of tomorrow will be able to identify and avoid situations and conditions long before they become dangerous.
Connectivity-based solutions: Dedicated Short-Range Communication (DSRC), cellular based wireless technologies, including Verizon’s 4G LTE, and other wireless technologies to enable vehicles to communicate with each other and infrastructure in real time, warding off collisions and ensuring smooth traffic flow. Cloud-based telematics will provide additional navigation and safety support, such as GPS error-correction technologies that are necessary to improve the accuracy of current GPS systems. Current digital mapping technology will also give way to high definition maps precise to within a couple of centimeters.
Other opportunities for innovation and investment include new battery technologies, infrastructure to support electric vehicles, and robust encryption to prevent hackers from assuming control of autonomous vehicles.
Tesla, Google, Apple, and Uber have been the most high profile companies working on these problems, but leading automakers and other companies are as well, including Verizon as one of the industry members of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), which is funding research in similar areas. But there is every reason to believe the systems that power, direct, and safeguard the autonomous cars of the future will be built by a visionary entrepreneur with an idea and a laptop.
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