Autonomous Automobiles Someday

Autonomous Automobiles Someday

Someday we will have autonomous automobiles. The operating word is someday.

There are a huge number of variables that must be addressed before autonomous automobiles can become the norm.

An autonomous taxi service is about to be launched in a small area of The Villages, in Florida, and it was possible to talk with the people behind the program.

Here are some of the highlights from our conversation.

Fundamental requirement

The first thing to understand is that all of the roads on which an autonomous vehicle is to operate must be mapped before the vehicle can set out without a driver.

What this entails is driving a vehicle mounted with LiDAR and recording devices to establish precisely where the road is located geospatially, and then adding all the stop signs, speed limits and other fixed features. The end result is a geographic information system (GIS) map of all the roads on which the autonomous vehicle is to operate.

It’s important for the roadway to be fully mapped with all stationary features identified before an autonomous vehicle can operate without a driver.

The LiDAR and cameras mounted on the vehicle, in conjunction with the software map, are to keep the automobile in the roadway and to identify variables as they occur, such as a pedestrian crossing the road.

The map provides all the fixed features of the road, while the LiDAR and cameras provide the variable information.

After the mapping has been done and the software tested to be certain it is accurate, there are still many obstacles to overcome.

LiDAR and camera mounting on a vehicle’s roof. Photo by D. Dears

Here are some of the problems that must be resolved.

Roundabouts

Roundabouts represent an especially difficult scenario with vehicles entering and leaving the roundabout while having to pass in front of other vehicles.

Stalled vehicle

An autonomous vehicle, when approaching a stalled vehicle, will stop behind the stalled vehicle, and remain there. It has no way of knowing whether the stalled vehicle is merely waiting for a red light or an object in the road, such as a pedestrian, or whether it is actually stalled and inoperable.

In the Villages, the company operating the autonomous taxi intends to have a manned central station that can communicate with the vehicle and direct it to move around the stalled vehicle.

Weather

Rain and snow are major problems. Large snowflakes, for example, can be interpreted by the software on the vehicle as an obstacle and order the vehicle to attempt to go around the snowflake.

Exhaust gasses and steam

The software can interpret the exhaust gasses from other vehicles, and steam, if thick enough, as obstacles in the road. Steam can come from a manhole cover in a city’s street.

Crowds

Pedestrians in major cities, such as New York, will cross the street against the light, and actually, surround a vehicle while crossing the street.

The autonomous vehicle will see a green light and not know how to move with people in-front, beside and behind the vehicle.

Arrow points to the antenna for communicating with the central station. Photo by D. Dears

In addition to LiDAR and cameras, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) sensing may be needed. Another possibility will be the installation of markers along streets and highways to assist vehicles in knowing where they are located.

Whether it will be possible to skip the mapping step is unknown. If that becomes possible, it could accelerate the adoption of autonomous vehicles.

Summary

There are many unknowns concerning how autonomous vehicles will respond to variables. A few possible troublesome variables:

  • Water standing in the road, or localized flooding.
  • Potholes
  • Temporary detours
  • Open swinging drawbridge

It will take many years to identify and resolve all the variables.

The next few years will see exploratory operations, such as those in The Villages, where conditions are well known. The next step will be to operate in cities and towns.

Even taxi service with autonomous vehicles in large cities, like New York City, will require the mapping of the many side streets which will take time. 

Unless technologies can be developed to omit the need for mapping roads and streets, it will require many years to map all the roads in the United States to allow autonomous vehicles to operate outside settled areas.

The vision of someone in the family car driving autonomously while working on his computer, from New York City to Naples, Florida, will happen someday, but most likely it will be many years in the future … possibly decades. Even driving autonomously relative short distances, such as from Albany, New York to Stowe, Vermont, isn’t likely to happen for many years.

It’s currently not possible to predict when autonomous vehicles will become ubiquitous, but it will happen … someday.

However, some automobile companies are predicting they will begin selling autonomous vehicles in 2021.

Stay tuned.

 

Note: For all articles, sources are available for the asking. Use comments to ask for links to Internet sources.

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