Bladerunner and the age of the automated vehicle

September 2015

- Mr Dean Zabrieszach - The autonomous or driverless vehicle has been popularly depicted in everything from Blade Runner through to Minority Report. Is this just a fictional device used by science fiction writers or were they actually accurate predictions?

Terms like autonomous vehicles, driverless vehicles and connected vehicles are becoming part of industries’ lexicon, but does this mean that the age of the ‘Blade Runner’ is really upon us? I would propose it is, being careful to include a proviso of ‘but’.

For the past decade, vehicle manufacturers, communications providers, software developers and equipment suppliers have been working with state-of-the-art technology to make smarter cars and trucks. 

Features like dynamic cruise control, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot assistance, reversing cameras, navigation systems and radars are examples of how this type of technology is already in play with modern, mass produced vehicles. This is what I would describe as the first phase of an automated vehicle.

In the next 2-3 years, car-makers will be introducing even more intuitive vehicles; vehicles that can communicate with road-side infrastructure such as traffic signals to ensure not only that the journey is efficient, but to avoid collisions with other vehicles.  Most brands (Toyota, BMW, Ford etc.) are working on these initiatives and improvements. This is the dawn of the connected vehicle, a stepping stone in the evolution towards the automated vehicle. 

The car that drives itself

However, it is the autonomous vehicle (a vehicle that drives itself) or a driverless vehicle that captures the public’s attention and grabs the major headlines. We already know that Google and Apple are looking into these vehicles. Apple seem to be completely behind the search engine giant in development as they have only (allegedly) developed their first prototype, while Google has publicly stated it has accrued nearly one million miles in self-driving mode, most of which were on real-world city streets.

However, other car makers like Volvo are also working in this space.  The City of Adelaide and the South Australian government will be hosting trials of automated Volvo vehicles later this year. It has also recently come to my attention that Ford Motor Company have patented an autonomous car that has reconfigurable seats (they will turn in a 180 degree motion to face the back of the car).

In many other parts of the world, similar tests and trials are being conducted. In the US, for example, ‘Mcity’, a 32-acre simulated urban and suburban environment specifically designed to test the potential of connected and automated vehicles has been opened by the University of Michigan, under the leadership of Australian, Dr Peter Sweatman.

With many companies in a mad dash to get fully autonomous vehicles on the market, there is a very real possibility that they could be ready as soon as 2025. These cars will be able to drive without human intervention – they might not even have a steering wheel.

And now for the ‘but’

Yes, we are on a precipice of having the technology that will allow cars to communicate with each other and their surroundings, but, are we ready to implement these technologies on a mass scale?

The answer is “probably not”. There is a lot of groundwork that has to be covered in a regulatory and policy sense. Additionally, each country will have a different view about how to integrate these technologies into their existing transportation systems. It is my belief that some countries will be early adopters, some will be followers, while others will not follow at all.

Where does Australia sit in all this?  In order to find out, come to the 2016 Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre from 10-14 October, 2016.

There you will be able to see, and listen to, close to 7,000 international delegates on intelligent transport systems, as well as participate in a 16,500 m2 exhibition, technical tours and demonstrations.  I look forward to seeing you there.