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Autonomous Cars: How Far We’ve Come and How Far We Have to Go

As the self-driving vehicle continues to come into focus, one subject matter expert tells what it will really take for autonomous vehicles to go mainstream.

Like any promising new technology, there’s been a lot of hype and excitement around autonomous vehicles over the past few years. Once reality set in, however, both automakers and drivers came to realize that the path to a world dominated by self-driving cars could be longer than originally anticipated.

For example, even if manufacturers get to a point where cars, trucks, and buses can drive by themselves, there are a whole host of other factors that come into play before we truly become a “self-driving” society.

In this exclusive interview with SourceToday, Paul Washicko, senior VP of product management at Irvine, Calif.-based CalAmp—a provider of IoT software applications, cloud services, data intelligence, and networked telematics products and services—shows how far automakers have come, the challenges they’ve encountered, and what needs to happen for self-driving cars to become mainstream. 

Q: Where do things stand on autonomous vehicles right now?

A: Well, there was quite a bit of hype and excitement around self-driving cars, but when reality set in I think automakers realized that there is a long road between “here and there”, if you will. For example, even if you can get a car to the point of being autonomous, there’s still a whole host of other issues that have to be taken into consideration. For example, there are both safety and legal implications to self-driving vehicles. There’s also a full range of cars to factor into the equation—from the ones that aren’t connected at all, to the ones that are completely connected via IoT, and many more in between.

On the safety front, there have been some accidents involving self-driving vehicles. Some of them were fatal and involved both pedestrians and other vehicles. From these unfortunate incidents we can see that no matter how many millions of miles automakers log with these vehicles, there are more to go in order for these vehicles to provide enough data for the machine learning (ML) to take effect. I think that’s the realization that automakers are coming to.

Q: What else needs to happen for self-driving cars to become a reality for the average person?

A:  At this point, there are a still a lot of moving pieces that haven’t been addressed. For example, automakers are going to have to come to grips with the fact that they’re still going to be liable for any accidents that may happen in their cars. They’ve been addressing edge computing (which allows data produced by IoT devices to be processed closer to where it is created, vs. sending it across long routes to data centers or clouds) and the autonomous vehicle itself, but there's still a lot of interaction that has to be taken into consideration, both from a legal perspective and in terms of safety, basic drivability, and so forth. 

Q: What role is advanced technology playing in the autonomous car?

A: Sensor technology has been critical to making the autonomous car a reality, and I think we’re going to see a new generation of sensors that will be able to do even more in this regard. Thus far, automakers have been using technology that’s not purpose-built for autonomous vehicle systems. Now, we’re starting to see companies designing sensors specifically for autonomous driving. Finally, there’s been a lot of discussion around 5G and the implications of it in various applications. Right now, for example, the autonomous technology is all being done in edge, with some connections to cellular. At some point, 5G will play a role, but that’s going to come into play later; perhaps within the next 4-5 years we’ll see it integrated into the overall autonomous driving systems.

Q: How does data come into play?

A: I think we’re probably another generation of hardware away from the edge computing capability right now, in terms of the order of magnitude and miles logged. This could be expedited if the manufacturers started sharing data, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. They all want to strike it rich and be the first to mine the gold. As much activity as there is in the U.S. around the self-driving car, the baton may now be passed to other parts of the world where they can advance the technology faster and not be bogged down by the legal implications.

Q: What are the broader supply chain implications of autonomous vehicles at this point?

A: There are various pilots going on now where, due to the driver shortages, carriers absolutely need this technology to be able to extend the hours that their drivers can be on the road. Going forward, we’ll probably see some regulation changes in this area. For example, the driver will still be in the cab, but he or she will be able to go for longer periods of time.

Q: How long will it be before we start to see self-driving cars in driveways in the U.S.?

A: We’ll probably see some new activity in the industry over the next 12-24 months or so, but right now no one really knows the answer to that question. Manufacturers, for example, know that electronics have to evolve, but in terms of just how those components will fit into the bigger picture of actually being able to deploy these systems, no one really knows. Things should become clearer over the next 12 months or so, but at this point it could be anywhere from five to 20 years before the average person owns a self-driving car.

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