How Do Autonomous Vehicles Work?
Autonomous cars are making their way onto the roads slowly but steadily, with a number of car manufacturers re-calibrating and testing autonomous car technologies. There might be a future where our vehicles will be able to take us to our destinations while we relax, which could significantly enhance our quality of life. It may sound imaginary or fictional, but the autonomous revolution has already started and these cars are blazing the path to a bright future.
Before we proceed to discuss the technology behind autonomous vehicles, let’s see why automotive manufacturers across the globe are rushing to develop these cars.
If you thought that autonomous vehicles are creating the buzz just because they ease traffic congestion or reduce emissions, you might be wrong. There’re some other key factors that promote emergence of these vehicles. Let’s have a look at them.
A fully autonomous vehicle is likely to be a lot safer compared to human-driven vehicle in almost any scenario. The key factor that can make this possible is implementation of AI or artificial intelligence. It doesn’t fall asleep, it never gets distracted, it isn’t taken by surprise, it isn’t hampered by hearing or failing eyesight, and is capable of seeing in the dark using infrared sensors and radar. With all these factors, speed limits could be higher for these vehicles and driving in close proximity to other vehicles too could be possible, allowing better and safer traffic flow.
Sometimes human drivers break the speed limit, or ignore traffic lights. But autonomous vehicles are made to obey the rules perfectly. Once all vehicles become autonomous, these factors can put an end to the alarming number of road accidents and traffic collisions. These vehicles can communicate with each other when they’re on the road, so that each of them becomes aware of every other car in its close proximity by knowing their position, speed, intended next heading etc. This will surely reduce traffic collisions to a great extent. Unlike human-driven cars that are provided with traffic signs and traffic lights to control driving, autonomous cars can receive information from roadside transmitters.
If you’ve ever parked in the car park of a supermarket and can’t get back in the car on your return because the doors have been blocked by another car, you can understand the catch. Imagine when all cars become autonomous and can park with no one inside. As the doors don’t need to be opened in such cases, they can park much closer, thus allowing more cars in the space.
Apart from the above, autonomous vehicles can enable people, who mayn’t be able to drive otherwise, travel on their own. These can be a great relief to people who’re too disabled, having age related problems, or going through medical conditions etc. Long journeys can become more productive and restful and the rider can read, work, sleep, watch a movie etc or anything else that can be done in a moving vehicle instead of driving. Reduced environmental impact is another crucial thing that can come along with autonomous cars. Convenient, accessible and affordable autonomous vehicles can increase the total number of miles driven every year. If these vehicles are gasoline-powered, the climate emissions could skyrocket. But if these are electrified, then transportation emissions can drop significantly.
Levels of autonomy in vehicles
Though autonomous technology is still in its infancy, it’s becoming increasingly common and can hugely transform the traditional driving scenario. Different vehicles come with different levels of autonomy, which researchers often describe on a scale of 0 to 5.
- Level 0: Humans control all major systems
- Level 1: Certain systems like automatic braking or cruise control can be controlled by the vehicle
- Level 2: The vehicle offers two simultaneous automated functions at the least, like steering and acceleration, but human intervention is required for safe operation
- Level 3: The vehicle is capable of managing safety functions under specific conditions, but it’s expected that the driver will take over when alerted
- Level 4: The vehicle is fully-autonomous in some scenarios, not all though
- Level 5: In every situation, the vehicle is completely autonomous
Working method of autonomous vehicles
Both automotive and technology companies have developed autonomous technologies over the last few years. Though each design varies, most autonomous vehicles make use of certain technologies. There’re three key functions that autonomous vehicles need in order to replace the requirement of drivers. First, it needs to know and understand where it’s located in relation to other objects or vehicles around it. Second comes the ability to figure out the safest and most convenient route to its destination. And third is the ability to travel there. These may seem like fundamental tasks for a human driver, but each of these functions have posed unique challenges for software and automotive engineers.
Autonomous cars make use of sophisticated software or programs that allow them to process the data in real time. Autonomous car technology gathers algorithms to process the information and enable the vehicle to react accordingly to different variables like road construction, traffic, detours, and different weather conditions like snow and rain, and the activities of human drivers on the road.
The technological leaps that have made autonomous cars a reality today encompass three key technologies.
All the data collected by a vehicle needs to be analyzed in order to identify the best course of action. This is the key function of the control software and algorithms. And this is also the most complex part of autonomous vehicles as decisions have to be made flawlessly to avoid casualties.
Autonomous vehicles use cloud computing to act according to maps, weather, traffic data, surface conditions, and adjacent vehicles, among others. It helps them make informed decisions by monitoring their surroundings better. Autonomous vehicles have to be connected to the internet even if the edge computing hardware is capable of solving small computing tasks locally.
The reality of autonomous vehicles heavily depends on different types of hardware components. These enable the vehicle to complete tasks like seeing (via sensors), communicating (via V2X technology), and moving (via actuators). Sensors allow the vehicle to take in raw information about the surrounding. Key sensors in autonomous vehicles include camera, LiDAR, IMUs/GPS, and radar. V2X technology lets the vehicle talk and receive information from other available machine agents like transmitted information from a city light. Actuators are responsible for things like controlling and moving the system.
While the hardware components enable the autonomous car to perform functions like seeing, communicating and moving, software components enable the vehicle to understand the actions to take – whether to slow down, move, stop etc. There’re three key systems that are managed by autonomous vehicle software.
It lets the vehicle understand the raw information coming in through V2V components or sensors. For instance, it enables the vehicle to understand whether a certain object is a pedestrian, another vehicle, or something else.
It stands for the ability of the vehicle to make specific decisions to accomplish some higher order goals. This is the system through which the vehicle understands what to do in a specific situation like slowing down, moving, stopping etc. This system works by merging established policies and knowledge about navigating in an environment with processed information about the environment.
This system is responsible for converting the intentions and goals obtained from the planning system into actions. Here, necessary inputs are given to the hardware by control system. For instance, an autonomous vehicle, knowing that it should move when a red light turns green, translates the knowledge into the action of applying the accelerators.
Apart from these technologies, the emergence of IoT is opening up many avenues in which our technology already helps devices and machines communicate with each other. With autonomous vehicles becoming more commonplace in the near future, we can expect them to be able to connect and communicate more efficiently and stay in-sync. In the present scenario, a majority of autonomous vehicles still need a driver readily available to take control of the car in case it comes across a situation for which it hasn’t been programmed.
The convergence of autonomous vehicles and the electric propulsion systems is perfectly aligned in many ways. First, electric vehicles come with inherent advantages like reducing the environmental impact and fuel savings. Second, electric vehicles are also easier for computers to drive.
Like any new technology, autonomous vehicles also come with some hurdles and one of the biggest of them is cost. Even with all the subsidies and tax credits used to encourage the market, autonomous vehicle technology comes at an incredible expense. Another major obstacle developers face is how to integrate these vehicles safely into the world of human-driven vehicles because it’s the humans who make mistakes.
With broad adoption of autonomous vehicle technology, we can expect to see broad rollouts on a macroeconomic level instead of small trials. It’s difficult to say when in the coming years we’ll find the technology solid enough to offer fully-autonomous vehicles without safety drivers. But once achieved, you can expect the pace of growth to be significantly faster than typical technology-adoption curves that have already started accelerating.
If you're interested in self-driving cars, read our another article about how electrical vehicles work?