Trusting Autonomous Vehicles: The Tech Behind The Hype

May 27, 2018 · 6 min read

In March 2018, when a self-driving Uber killed a pedestrian in Arizona, all hell broke loose. The public and media reacted dramatically, putting the autonomous vehicle industry under more stress, scrutiny and criticism than ever before. To some, this reaction might appear justified. But in reality, more than 90% of car crashes in the U.S. involve some form of human error, whereas self-driving vehicles are designed to decrease road accidents.

Nonetheless, the incident has given rise to some important ethical and practical issues that surround automation and advancements in artificial intelligence. A driverless world is an inevitable part of our future, and it will benefit us immensely in the long-run. But as we approach this future, people are bound to wonder about the extent to which we can trust autonomous, connected vehicles. To answer this, some questions that we need to address are: what is the technology that makes self-driving cars so intelligent? How will law enforcement deal with incidents and accidents involving autonomous vehicles? How can we be sure that the autonomous vehicle industry will reduce the number of accidents? Can we truly, wholly, trust autonomous vehicles?

Public Perception of Autonomous Vehicles

Today, even though trusted tech giants like Google, Uber and Tesla are knee-deep in the AV industry, only about 26% of consumers say they would purchase a self-driving vehicle.

The main barrier seems to be trust, which is likely to slow the rate of adoption even as self-driving technology accelerates. As the number of AVs grows, consumer confidence and expectations will play an important role in determining how quickly they are adopted.

While companies like Google and Uber initiated the transition to a driverless world, several startups have been involved in producing and testing self-driving cars. In the first quarter of 2017 alone, investors poured about $1.4 billion into startups in that space because of the promising potential the industry provides. For the most part, self-driving cars from both new and established companies have well made it through safety tests. However, a small percentage of these tests have resulted in accidents, including a fatal 2016 crash in which a Tesla’s autopilot failed to notice a white tractor-trailer against the bright sky. The Tesla accident, too, incited a wave of scrutiny and frenzy, causing even technology experts to turn around and say that self-driving systems are still far from perfect.

But like any other exponential trend, the technology that drives AVs is getting increasingly sophisticated by the minute. The same companies that are investing billions of dollars into testing self-driving cars are doing a phenomenal job of bringing us closer to a future where these vehicles rarely fail. Even amidst the controversy around AVs, the intent of the industry is to avoid human error on the road, free up drivers to increase productivity, reduce the number of fatal car accidents, and alleviate the fatigue that often plagues human drivers. Once the technology is perfected, the benefits will be transformative.

The Technology Behind It All

Many people have a limited understanding of how exactly autonomous vehicles work, making it difficult to trust the industry. But in truth, AVs are designed for safety as they run on reliable, trusted, and connected systems that are constantly being tested and re-tested.

An autonomous vehicle, or “connected car”, is essentially a data center on wheels. Cloud-based infrastructure, management and networking technologies are fundamental in the transition to driverless vehicles. Thanks to advancements in cloud technology, the connected car can interact and communicate over multiple network layers — and that is exactly what makes it so reliable. To achieve near-perfect levels of autonomy and reliability, all self-driving cars will employ some combination of sensors, cameras, high performance GPS, AI and Machine Learning.

The various aspects and layers of the cloud make autonomous vehicles far more reliable than human drivers. An autonomous vehicle needs to collect and process vast amounts of data in real-time to be responsive to changing conditions as well as to random events on the road — like a pedestrian crossing. It needs to be able to shift lanes, assess how other cars on the road move, and react accordingly — all within a split second. A scalable, highly reliable cloud-based infrastructure can process this large-scale data, which is how AVs are being safely tested. But what really ties it together and makes it the solution for the future is the fact that AVs are run by an intelligent cloud-based management system and network that can aggregate, analyze and respond to data in real time.

Vehicle to Vehicle Communication

An advanced cloud infrastructure and internal management system is the first step to making the driverless world a trusted norm. It’s clear that we need infrastructure and data management that secures and manages the flow of data.

But the power of the cloud will allow us to go beyond just processing and managing the internal data and systems for each vehicle: it will pave the path for vehicle to vehicle communication. Cloud networking is a key aspect of the driverless industry that allows vehicles to constantly interact with each other and respond in real time. This constant machine to machine communication ensures safety on the road and will increase urban efficiency by improving traffic flow.

In fact, according to the World Economic Forum, traditional telecommunication companies like AT&T have already identified the value in machine to machine communications and are focusing on connecting more new vehicles as opposed to selling new smartphones. With secure cloud networks, cars will be able to communicate with each other, letting them learn from other vehicles and making adjustments that account for external changes like a detour or harsh weather.

A Connected Future

To go above and beyond that, imagine if vehicles could talk not just with each other, but also with roadside infrastructure. Sensors on the road, traffic lights, bridges and parking lots will create an integrated cloud-based communication network of continually moving digital information. This connected solution will not only increase safety and improve traffic flow, but it will also free us up to use time spent on the road in a more productive, creative, and satisfying way.

Societal Benefits of AVs

When we consider a future in which every car on the road is connected and driving is fully automated via the cloud, it’s easy to jump to the dystopian conclusion that driverless cars will put close to 5 million truckers, cabbies and other drivers out of work. The immediate threat to jobs is a reality that we need to confront. One solution to the job loss from automation is Universal Basic Income.

However, in the long run, AVs could be profoundly beneficial to society in various ways. To offset the several jobs that the driverless world will destroy, it will create many new, exciting ones. These new jobs are likely to involve more human interaction or creativity. For instance, new companies will emerge that provide customer service for AVs or that analyze and process the large amounts of data extracted from AVs. Similarly, as more companies enter the AV industry, jobs will open up to design, innovate, program and further automate vehicles for the future.

The $7 Trillion Passenger Economy

When discussing the implications of a driverless world, many technology enthusiasts and experts suggest that self-driving cars will give rise to a “Passenger Economy” in which individuals will dedicate the time that they spend driving into creating new products and services for society. These products and services could add $7 trillion to the global economy. With the advent of AVs, time spent driving can be used by the individual for productivity, creativity and innovation, or even for other enjoyable tasks that increase happiness — like reading, writing, or watching TV.

Source: Intel Corporation

When AVs go mainstream, three important things will happen: drivers will have more time for everything, parking will become easier, and accident rates will dramatically drop.

It’s clear that the rise of autonomous, connected vehicles will have a profound impact not only on the automobile industry, but on society in general. The only barrier that we are likely to face to fully adopting autonomous vehicles is consumer trust. But if advancements in technology over the past few decades have taught us anything, it’s that automation is far better for us than we think.

Tannya D. Jajal

Written by

Techno-optimist who is passionate about carving out an exciting future based on advances in exponential technologies. PM @ VMware

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