The once sci-fi pipe dream of movies like “The Fifth Element” and “I, Robot”, and KITT from TV’s “Knight Rider” started to become a reality when Google announced their intentions to build a self-driving car circa 2009. In the 7 years since, more and more automotive manufacturers and independent companies have jumped on board with their own fully autonomous vehicle concepts; Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion research car, Honda’s ADAS-equipped Civic, Acura’s next-gen RLX hybrid, as well as Tesla, Ford, General Motors (GM), Audi, Lexus, and Rolls-Royce among others. Some manufacturers opted to develop vehicles specifically suited to the concept of a driverless car, while others have pursued technology that could be adapted to any model to enable self-driving modes.
The Self-Driving Coalition (a team-up of Ford, Volvo, Uber, Lyft, and Google) has even been created to “work with lawmakers, regulators, and the public to realize the safety and societal benefits of self-driving vehicles,” according to a public statement by the group.
The self-driving car, driverless car, or autonomous vehicle (AV) has been making huge strides towards actually hitting the market. On May 28th and 29th were the first ever Autonomous Track Days at Thunderhill Raceway. Sixteen teams tested their AVs and other platforms that would enable the technology to become a smarter and safer experience; spatial localization system, optical depth sensing cameras, GPS systems, and sensors that measure inertia. Car and Driver described the event as an “amorphous milestone”.
The D.C. National Harbor’s Olli, an autonomous electric 12-passenger shuttle using IBM technology, has been ahead of the game, humanizing the tech by adding cognitive speech abilities. Being able to answer passenger questions is a step towards establishing rapport, relieving discomfort, and making the driverless vehicle experience an enjoyable one for passengers.
The investment game behind AVs is also heating up. GM paid over $1 billion to acquire Cruise Automation, while reports of the most recent rounds of capital funding have implied that an independent AV start-up called Zoox could be worth the same amount. We are looking at an impending investment frenzy, spurred also by the variety of way companies are tackling the AV technology.
The ecosystem is complex; everyone from vehicle manufacturers to camera and sensor companies, to mapping technology and artificial intelligence software is looking to build or build part of an AV product. While some companies are being very secretive about their tech, others are boasting prototypes and their positioning to move into the market. As the technology becomes a fully actualized reality, competition is heating up for both giant corporations and tech start-ups.
What does the future hold for the AV? We’re closer to seeing it than ever before. And who will win the race to put the first AV on the market? Only time will tell. In the meantime, please enjoy this short clip from HBO’s Silicon Valley. We’re hoping that driverless car technology will be a little more intuitive once it hits markets in the real world.