Delphi Automotive PLC, a technologies supplier for the automotive world, has just done what many would have deemed impossible a decade ago: It went on a coast-to-coast road trip in an Audi that drives itself. An autonomous Audi SQ5 made the record-setting 3,400-mile journey in nine days and was only manually operated 1% of the time, according to Delphi. This is huge news for the automotive industry, especially since the entire trip went off without a hitch and the system is still reportedly “bug-free.”
Many people out there are probably still wondering what makes a car fully autonomous. Autonomous, or automated cars, rely on a bevy of lasers, cameras, satellites, and computers to monitor their surroundings so that the vehicle can “drive itself.” This requires a complex maze of advancements (not to mention countless man hours), but the notion is finally beginning to gather steam. And while there may not be any fully autonomous cars on the roadways today due to legality issues, it is just a matter of time before we start seeing them on showroom floors.
When Delphi announced last March that it planned on putting a car on autopilot and sending it from one side of America to another, there were some concerns. The feeling of being “out of control” while going 65 miles per hour down an interstate can be a terrifying notion to some. There are also issues with legalities, because if the car gets into an accident, who is to blame? No one was technically driving the car at the time, so surely the computer and Delphi aren’t going to want to take the blame. Insuring such a vehicle will require some bureaucratic gymnastics, as well.
But qualms and concerns aside, there’s new hope that the U.S. government gives its approval for auto manufacturers to start equipping cars with an autopilot button. According to CBS News, this design “could be ready for market as early as 2020.” These sensor-laden, self-driving “smart cars” really are what sci-fi fans have been pining for all along, and with new advancements in laser technology leading the way, the future looks bright for anyone wanting a self-driving car. But that’s still a bit of a stretch from where we are today, so for the time being, let’s review what Delphi has discovered.
According to Delphi, this 3,400-mile road trip was designed to “demonstrate the full capabilities of its active safety technologies with the longest automated drive ever attempted in North America.” Delphi engineers had already seen stellar results from previous testing, both in California and on the streets of Las Vegas, so they decided to throw the system into the deep end of the pool to see if it could stay afloat. A cross-country trip of this magnitude would also give the engineers a chance to gather critical data and monitor system functions in a much wider variety of environments, which is near impossible to achieve in a lab setting.
Delphi’s autopilot system works, as the car is currently sitting pretty on the East Coast without a scratch on it, and there haven’t been any reports of electrical fires, issues with steering response times, or zealous donuts being cut in parking lots across America. The Audi SQ5 came equipped with a lot of tech from the factory, but instead of stripping down the car, Delphi opted instead to build on what was already there. The Delphi engineers now have a lot of features to thank for their successful peregrination from San Francisco to New York last month.
The entire setup is built around a radar- and vision-based camera system that feeds into the car’s Advanced Drive Assistance Systems (ADAS), along with a high-end microprocessor that drives everything at once. According to Delphi, the car’s software enables the vehicle to make “complex, human-like decisions for real-world automated driving” and features things like traffic jam assistance, an automated highway pilot that helps with lane changes, an automated urban pilot for inner city adventures, and an automated parking and valet function for when it’s time to hop out of the car.
Delphi also gives the vehicle the ability to make real-life choices, like when to go at a four-way stop with people at every stop sign, timing a highway merge with semis blocking the way, or calculating the best way to get around bicyclists who think the road is all theirs.
When the trip was complete, all of the data collected during this drive was turned over to Delphi HQ for further analysis in the hopes of furthering advancements in the “active safety technology field,” which, according to Delphi is “the most rapidly growing technology sector of the auto industry.” And while it may have been an exhaustively long trip, with the engineers seeing a whopping 15 states in just nine days, at least they didn’t have to worry about driver’s fatigue. They didn’t even have to worry about construction zones, overly aggressive drivers, disgruntled truckers, twisting tunnels, or bad weather conditions. The only thing they had to do on occasion was top off the tank and make sure that the snack bag was properly packed.
According to its website, Delphi’s goal is to make products that are “scalable, flexible, and affordable,” all while continuously working with automakers to expedite the process of making automated vehicles a feasible option in the near future. “Our comprehensive product portfolio and vehicle integration expertise uniquely positions Delphi as one of only a handful of companies with the ability to provide automakers complete automated driving solutions,” says company CTO Jeff Owens.
So the test was a smashing success, Delphi is working on building relationships with auto manufacturers like never before, and it looks like the tech-savvy specialist might be paving the way for further advancements in the world of automotive engineering and autonomously driven cars as a whole. But what does all of this mean for the consumer and American roadways?
Without question, there are quite a few considerations the Department of Transportation has to weigh before cutting everyone loose in a bunch of self-driving cars. There is the issue we mentioned earlier that highlights insurance claim issues when an accident takes place. And if someone wants to file a lawsuit because a life was lost in an accident, who gets the court summons, since no one is technically driving the car? Then there is the issue with split-second decision making. Will the car choose to save the driver or the pedestrian, and who gets the blame when the smoke clears?
These and many other heavy-handed questions have plagued the autonomously driven car since its inception and will undoubtedly continue to do so for quite a while longer. There is no getting around the fact that cars continue to be a lethal element in our daily lives, and the government needs to consider every possible scenario before signing off on a bill that allows drivers the ability to relinquish control and be completely “along for the ride.” But with success stories like this leading the way, and creative masterminds like Rinspeed’s Frank M. Rinderknecht creating cars that thrive on autopilot, the future of transportation is sure to involve dozing off behind the wheel to better guarantee that a well-rested traveler arrives at a destination on time.
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