23rd June 2017
What’s the latest in the world of autonomous vehicles?
Whether you’re someone who agrees with views like those of The Scotsman’s Jim Duffy1 who perceives that “this driverless cars malarkey is coming to a road near you faster than you think” or you’re a little more sceptical, aligned with someone like Chris Spear2, president of the American Trucking Association, who recently stated that autonomous trucks are still decades away, the latest developments make for fascinating reading.
The wide-ranging benefits of driverless vehicles aren’t disputed, from enabling older citizens to remain independent and mobile for longer3 and increasing the efficiency of online and other retailers even further, to reducing or probably eliminating vehicular fatalities and even injuries. But how imminent do they appear to be, based on the latest developmental news?
Some driverless vehicles currently being tested are a far cry from conventional-looking motor cars and appear more like rather boring pods, such as ‘Harry’4, who has been trundling around Greenwich for the last couple of months as part of a project from Oxbotica and TRL, primarily aimed at linking transport hubs and public buildings more seamlessly. Sometime during 2019, an ensemble of British organisations called The Driven group5 is set to unleash a fleet of autonomous vehicles that will conduct ongoing test runs between Oxford and London, and will hopefully appear rather more car-like.
Anyone as keen as us on seeing cars remaining aesthetically traditional and retaining desirability on various levels can drool at the prospect of Volvo’s Drive Me6 self-driving project physically getting under way in the UK later this year or early in 2018, with up to 100 of the Swedish firm’s gorgeous XC90 SUVs autonomously driving on predefined routes out of London. Real human beings are currently being recruited, encompassing a variety of ages, family situations and attitudes towards autonomy; and the T8 Twin Engine hybrid models will be equipped with additional technologies enabling them to drive amongst everyday traffic, gathering hundreds of terabytes of data as they do so.
Ocado, the ‘premium’ online food and drink retailer7, is another large name that has teamed up with the aforementioned Oxbotica, pioneering driverless delivery vans that will illuminate each customer’s numbered compartment on arrival. The vans will benefit from Ocado’s existing vehicle-to-vehicle systems which continuously monitor vehicle speed, fuel consumption and traffic flow to determine optimal routes for their drivers.
Looking at autonomous vehicle technology itself, it seems NVIDIA8, a name anyone who grew up on a diet of computer games and self-built PCs will be familiar with, is surging ahead. The graphics chip specialist has signed deals with a raft of OEMs from Audi, Bosch and Mercedes to Tesla and Volkswagen, all keen to embrace NVIDIA’s DRIVE PX2 platform to enable the introduction of ever more advanced driverless technology increasingly quickly. Last month saw a particularly exciting deal announced that will see volume manufacturer, Toyota, take advantage of NVIDIA’s new next-generation chipset called Xavier, resulting in mass-produced family and fleet cars brimming with ADAS safety tech and semi-autonomous functionality.
On the international stage, this August will see the debut journey made by Russia’s first driverless juggernaut or ‘unmanned ground vehicle’ (UGV)9, which will transport a genuine client’s commercial cargo between Moscow and St. Petersburg with cooperation from the government, transport ministry and traffic police. The Americans have already completed successful autonomous lorry journeys though, with players like Uber and Waymo passionately hammering away in their sheds to refine their solutions to the world’s truck driver shortage.
Meanwhile, in Sweden, technology that has been proven in the mining industry after its introduction last year is now being bestowed to the refuse collection arena, with self-driving Volvo bin waggons10 deployed in a pilot project running til the end of the year.
Our final global destination in this driverless vehicle snapshot is China, where a refreshingly conventional-looking autonomous bus/train hybrid called the ‘smart bus’11 has been announced for the city of Zhuzhou, using white dots and sensors to guide its way around the urban landscape.
Why be content with focussing just on the ground, though? At this year’s Geneva Motor Show, renowned styling house Italdesign showcased, alongside Airbus, a zero-emissions flying car12 incorporating vertical take-off and landing technology that it reckons would alleviate the world’s most congested cities.
It’ll be years before Joe and Jane Public will be able to afford driverless cars, which are unsurprisingly expensive to develop at present. Unfortunately for driving enthusiasts and anyone with Luddite leanings, though, it looks like car ownership will be a thing of the past relatively soon anyway as leasing and ride-sharing take over. Anyway, all these technological developments in the meantime are undeniably riveting, whatever your sentiments.