Autonomous vehicles are coming. In fact, for some destinations around the world, they are already here.
Many of the leading automakers around the world have already released semi-autonomous vehicles. These are vehicles that offer advanced driver assistance features that make them close to being able to drive themselves.
Most of these semi-autonomous systems are designed to work on highways and motorways where little steering or braking is required. They can be set to maintain a specific speed and distance from vehicles in front and help to ease the strain for the driver, particularly on long journeys.
These semi-autonomous vehicles are certainly more prevalent in the US, although we can expect some of these vehicles to start trickling through to the New Zealand market over the next 12-24 months.
The introduction of smarter cars to our roads will profoundly change the way we commute, and inherently change the way we go about our day-to-day lives.
It will also require huge changes to the wider transportation network.
Through advanced syncing and interconnected data, smart vehicles will be able to interact with each other as well as specific beacons placed on the roadside. This will create a transportation network that knows every vehicle (and possibly every passenger) and where they want to go.
How far off are autonomous vehicles (AVs)?
If all of this sounds like fantasy and science fiction, then reports that AVs could be in the mainstream by 2030 might come as a surprise.
According to a 2014 article on Wired by Alex Davies, senior editor at Insider and the former editor of WIRED’s transportation section, “By 2030, most new cars will be made without rearview mirrors, horns, or emergency brakes. By 2035, they won’t have steering wheels or acceleration and brake pedals. They won’t need any of these things because they will be driving themselves.”
This is not Davies’ personal opinion. It is based on a study conducted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). Alberto Broggi, a professor of computing engineering at the University of Parma and an IEEE fellow says the 2035 date predictions are realistic, but “you need to be very sure that the car is able to handle any scenario” before you give it full control. That will require a whole lot of testing and validation.
In a 2018 article on The Conversation, they suggest that “driverless cars will be commercially available by 2025 and the whole UK transportation system will be fully automated by 2070.”
The smart car revolution is coming, and it is coming sooner than a lot of people can imagine.
What is an autonomous vehicle?
We’ve already touched upon the definition of an AV, however, it is also important to note that the level of automation can vary from zero to full automation. NHTSA classifies vehicle automation in five levels:
- No-Automation (Level 0) – At all times, the driver has complete and sole command and control of the vehicle with respect to steering, braking, throttle and motive power.
- Function-specific automation (Level 1) – Some specific control function(s) such as electronic stability control or precharged brakes is(are) automated.
- Combined function automation (Level 2) – At least two main control functions such as adaptive cruise controlFootnote4 in combination with lane centeringFootnote5 are automated.
- Limited self-driving automation (Level 3) – Under certain traffic or environmental conditions, the driver cedes full control of all safety-critical functions and relies heavily on the vehicle to watch for any changes in conditions requiring transition to driver control. The driver will be required to resume control of the vehicle, but with sufficient transition time.
- Full self-driving automation (Level 4) – The vehicle is intelligently designed to monitor roadway conditions and act solo, performing all safety-critical driving functions for an entire trip (a fully driverless level).
When we talk about the adoption of autonomous vehicles, we are talking about full self-driving automation found at level 4.
Currently, the semi-autonomous vehicles available commercially are all classified as level 2. This level of autonomy requires the driver to always be in control of the vehicle, but the car’s features allow it to handle steering, acceleration and braking under the driver’s supervision. Vehicles with this level of autonomy monitor the driver to make sure he or she is ready to take control of the car if needed.
Here in New Zealand, the best example of level 2 semi-autonomous vehicles is the Tesla Model S, although subsequent models have also adopted the same Autopilot system that first appeared in the Model S.
Every new Tesla comes with the Autopilot system that includes adaptive cruise control and lane-centring assist as standard.
Overseas, especially in the US, numerous manufacturers have released cars with very similar features including Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen, Volvo, Nissan, Ford, and Audi.
How AVs will change transportation networks
Whilst fully autonomous vehicles are not available commercially right now, Google has been trialling self-driving vehicles in and around Silicon Valley for a number of years.
According to a report by Bagloee, S.A., Tavana, M., Asadi, M. et al. Autonomous vehicles: challenges, opportunities, and future implications for transportation policies as recently as July 2015, Google’s driverless fleets logged over one million miles during which only 14 minor traffic accidents on public roads were recorded.
A follow-up Engadget article in 2021, reported that the autonomous vehicles have now driven more than 20 million miles on public roads as well as 20 billion miles in simulations.
Waymo, an Alphabet subsidiary, says the AI used in Google’s self-driving vehicles can recognise and adapt to local driving behaviours, such as what lane to turn in at each intersection. According to the company, Waymo Driver can also mimic other vehicles’ behaviour, such as in San Francisco, where people tend to drive a little slower while going up steep slopes.
Testing like this will be essential to the rollout of autonomous vehicles and the safety record of Google’s self-driving vehicles certainly provides some positive indications that there is room for autonomous vehicles on the road.
The introduction of autonomous vehicles puts the transportation industry on the verge of massive disruption and this will drive the need to create more robust smart transportation networks.
As reported on the NEC global website, “Technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, IoT sensors and vehicles that are able to communicate with each other, drivers and things like road infrastructure (known as V2X ”Vehicle to X(everything)” communications capabilities) will all need to be increasingly relied on for smart transportation systems to reach their full potential.”
The article goes on to say, “Once autonomous cars become mainstream in ten years, current transportation systems will be totally transformed. Auto accidents, parking spaces and automotive insurance could all disappear once all vehicles become autonomous.
“Consumers may choose to use an autonomous vehicle to travel overnight without the hassle of actively driving instead of taking an airplane or a train. People will also be able to remotely work and control smart homes via 5G communication systems and hence our working and leisure styles will also be transformed.”
What does the future hold for smart transportation systems?
At NEC New Zealand, we are leaders in the smart transportation field, and we are already rolling projects out across New Zealand that will facilitate the huge changes to the transportation network here in New Zealand as autonomous vehicles start to become more prevalent.
As reported by NEC, globally, smart transportation systems are already in huge demand due to the high costs of traffic congestion in urban areas but going forward will become even more important with the advent of self-driving cars.
Given the high reliance that self-driving cars will have on IT networks, smart transportation systems will also have to evolve and incorporate technologies such as cloud computing, 5G, IoT sensors and AI to facilitate and manage city-wide fleets of autonomous vehicles.
Therefore, in 10 years, smart transportation systems will essentially function as the central nervous system of smart cities, and cases such as the examples from Lisbon and Toronto below give us an image of what these systems will look like.
Smart transportation systems will have a huge impact on smart cities but will also have an important role in transforming society itself.
Once smart transportation systems become common, other industries will be transformed as well.
For example, a world with fully autonomous cars will not require most forms of insurance. Real estate markets will also be radically changed as parking lots will be obsolete, and police and other public safety bodies will be able to concentrate more time on non-vehicular matters (and will also in some cases need to find new sources of revenue as traffic tickets will disappear).
But for this to happen, solid ICT infrastructure will need to be in place as technologies like 5G, sensor networks, AI and cloud services will be needed to collect, transmit, store, and analyse this data.
How Lisbon and Toronto are planning for a smarter future for their transportation networks
Cloud computing will be at the core of smart transportation systems, as local governments and other authorities will need real-time information to make fast and accurate decisions involving transportation networks.
The city of Lisbon, Portugal contracted NEC to provide its Cloud City Operation Centre as part of the city’s Municipal Government Services Integrated Operation Centre.
This system will allow several government bodies in Lisbon to receive and visualise real-time information about several city conditions via IoT sensors. As a result, local authorities will be able to visualise conditions like traffic jams and illegal parking in real-time and will be able to take corrective action.
Going forward, NEC’s AI solution will also be integrated into the system in order to enhance the autonomy and efficiency of the system.
Most of today’s smart transportation systems are still hardware-based, which does not allow real-time communication of conditions, but once self-driving cars become mainstream, cloud computing will be a mandatory requirement for smart transportation systems, and the city of Lisbon is ahead of the curve in this respect.
The city of Toronto, Canada has also embarked on its aggressive vision of a smart city for a planned Quayside smart community along its waterfront.
The overall project is an ambitious attempt to create a data-driven city powered by several technologies, and smart transportation is a key feature of the project.
Within the initial 12-acre district, private vehicles will be completely banned. All on-road vehicles will be autonomous, and goods will be delivered via freight robots operating in underground tunnels.
IoT sensors installed in sidewalks will monitor pedestrian traffic and ensure real-time safety when crossing roads. Cameras using AI will guide traffic flow as well and all information is planned to be communicated with pedestrians using an app.
This smart city deployment presents a vision of the future where there are no private vehicles, and hence the city is totally dependent on smart transportation in order for the city to run.
As such extremely robust networks and IT services will be absolutely critical in order for this system to work and at the same time offer a vision of what smart transportation systems will look like in 10 years.
The future of smart transportation
At NEC New Zealand, we are proud to be at the forefront of smart transportation here in New Zealand and we are excited about the endless possibilities that smart solutions bring to the transportation industry.
Autonomous vehicles will be a driving force for change and in some countries, they are already embracing that change. Sweden announced last year that they will be building the world’s first electric road in 2025 – a road capable of charging electric cars and trucks as they drive.
The US were quick to follow suit, announcing that a ground-breaking one-mile stretch of road that can charge electric vehicles as they move or sit stationary is to be built in Detroit, USA, as part of an inductive vehicle charging pilot program.
Whilst electric roads might seem like a fantasy or something from the world of fiction, the reality is that they are closer than we think.
Smart cars and vehicles are impacting the whole transportation sector, and smart transportation solutions will need to keep up with the technological advancements we are seeing in today’s vehicles in order to support the capabilities these vehicles bring.