Coming Soon to a Garage Near You: Autonomous Cars

Twenty years ago, we might not have imagined that we’d carry our phone, camera and laptop around in our pocket, but — like Henry Ford said when he created the Model-T, “If I had asked them what they wanted, they would have asked me for a faster horse.” Now we can’t imagine our lives without our mobile devices.

The same may be true 20 years from now for autonomous, or self-driving, cars. In the not too distant future, we could well rely on this powerful technology to keep us safe, connected and productive on the road.

Experts predict autonomous cars will provide a similar boost to the economy. Outside of increasing the efficiency of everyday people, enabling us to get more done, self-driving cars are expected to be a $42 billion market by 2025 (Boston Consulting Group). At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, major automakers, including Ford, Chevrolet and GMC, unveiled plans to invest more in autonomous vehicle technology, from sensing to memory to data security. Ford, for example, promises to triple its fleet of autonomous test cars by the end of 2016.

Having a self-driving car in your garage might not be that far off. So how exactly do they work? The information technology industry plays a leading role. Self-driving cars rely on memory technology developed by companies like Micron to run advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). ADAS take in enormous amounts of data about road conditions, weather and traffic and interpret the data quickly and reliably so cars can respond safely.

This in-car technology has enormous potential to make cars safer — it can reduce driver errors and send critical information rapidly to emergency responders. And it could also make a major impact on our way of life — from dropping off the kids at school to helping the elderly be more mobile.

It takes a lot of bright minds to make a car drive itself. One of them is Axel Schiller, director of automotive marketing at semiconductor-maker Micron. “I’m most passionate about being involved in something that can influence our whole way of life,” Schiller said. “Working on autonomous driving technology is literally like being able to look into the future, and that’s very exciting.”

But there is also a lot of risk involved. For example, how would a self-driving car handle an unpredictable situation like a road crew repaving a section of highway? And what about data security? In a connected car, you could theoretically extend your workday, do online banking, shop online. How do we make sure we’re not only physically safe in self-driving cars, but also data-secure? Even more, what about when physical security and data security overlap?

These are key questions facing the regulators and lawmakers building a framework for a safe roadway environment for these connected cars.

“The cars are ready — it’s the drivers who aren’t,” Schiller continues. “Ask yourself: are you willing to take your hands off the wheel and let the car drive?”

From insurance to urban planning to the travel industry, autonomous driving will have a significant impact on the way our economy — in fact our society — works. “Autonomous driving has the potential to radically change our entire way of life,” Schiller said. “Think about the impact on families: with one car, a family’s movements from home to work to school to the store and back could be much simpler. Think about elderly people, how much more mobile they could be later in their lives with a self-driving vehicle.”

For now, researchers like Axel Schiller and others across the industry are exploring new ways for memory technology to keep us safe, connected and productive on the road — whether we’re in the car or not.