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FAQs: Autonomy and what it means to you

Everyone says the future is looking driverless, but what does that actually mean?

Everyone says the future is looking driverless, but what does that actually mean?
Autonomy is the global automotive industry’s latest trend – and, boy, is it a concept to delight and fascinate tech heads.
But for the man (person) in the street, the word means little. And if you are that person in the street, you want to know whether to trust the technology that will be guiding the driverless cars bearing down on you, as they begin to reach the market over the next decade or so.

So let’s start with the basics…
What does ‘Autonomy’ mean?
The word is defined as ‘independence or freedom… of will’. In the automotive context it refers to cars that can essentially ‘think’ for themselves and drive with less human input (or no input at all) than conventional cars.
How does the technology work?
At its most basic level an autonomous car features computer processors to regulate the major aspects of a vehicle’s operation and sensors to feed information to the computers. The processors monitor input from onboard cameras, radar and lidar, global positioning data (from the car’s satellite navigation system) and other sensors. The computers then send instructions to electro/mechanical devices that control steering, braking, acceleration, etc…

Can the technology be retrofitted to older cars?
I AWN… To be autonomous, a car must be electric in almost every possible way. Electric power steering can be computer operated, a traditional hydraulic or manual set-up can’t (or not easily, at least). Braking systems need electronic systems to regulate the braking. Unlike steering, brakes have been electronically controlled (even though the basic system is hydraulic) since anti-lock braking became mandatory. The engine management system has to be electronic for the powertrain to respond at the whim of a computer. The list goes on…

This is all bleeding-edge stuff that can’t be trusted.
Not really. Cameras have no moving parts, they don’t go wrong unless the lens is obscured by fog, rainwater or dirt. When that happens, the system will post an alert to the driver, to take control. And radar cuts through the rain and fog anyway.
The processors have been in constant development since the early days of anti-lock braking in the late 1970s. Repurposing these processors to handle reverse parking for you was first proposed decades ago and is now commonplace.
Ultrasonic sensors at the front, rear and even the sides of the car ensure it’s always parked neat and tidy, at a sensible distance from obstacles. That technology is nearly two decades old, even in Australia. Linking those sensors to an autonomous guidance system was the original ‘no brainer’.
From backing a car into a parking spot (with even more sophisticated systems in the works to handle brakes and throttle as well) to keeping a car on track around the suburbs and on freeways is the automotive equivalent of a hop, skip and jump.
The technology is available right now; only liability issues and legislation are holding back cars that can drive you hundreds of kilometres to a destination.

How will a car know where to go?
The autonomous car will be programmed by the driver through the satellite navigation system, but future cars are anticipated to be ‘summoned’ (which is Tesla’s term) to a specific location by the ‘driver’ (or the vehicle user, to be more precise) sending an instruction over the internet or by phone.
Even now, the technology exists for a smart vehicle to park itself in tight spots, accepting instructions from a WiFi-enabled remote key.

When will autonomous cars reach the market?
In one sense, they’re already here. The automotive industry has established ‘levels’ of autonomy, and level-one cars are on the roads right now. They work and they’re legal.
The technology has so far proved itself to be robust and reliable. And even if it becomes incapable of seeing a car in front – due to a build-up of road grime on a lens, for example – it will inform the driver accordingly. To date, there have been no credible local reports of a car crash resulting from an ‘autonomous’ vehicle malfunction.
So what are these levels then?
BMW Australia CEO Marc Werner recently explained in layman’s terms what the five levels of autonomy are.

Level one – ‘feet off’
This is adaptive cruise control that will bring a car to a complete stop behind another vehicle – “feet off,” in Werner’s own words. It’s already available on prestige and near-prestige cars and employs the same hardware as that new ‘must have’ for the OH&S set, Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB).

Level two – ‘hands off’
This “is what we launched with 7 Series,” Werner explained.
A level-two car is one that will steer itself, as well as brake and accelerate. It uses existing technology suites such as ‘Lane Keep Assist’, ‘Blind Spot Monitoring’ and adaptive cruise control/autonomous braking to maintain a safe distance from the car in front and hold steady in a lane on a freeway.

Level three – ‘eyes off’
The car requires reduced supervision by the driver. Level two cars currently demand you hold the wheel at typically 15-30sec intervals. With level-three cars you needn’t be as observant. Plug the destination into the satellite navigation and leave the car to take you there. Pull out the smartphone to check your emails, play ‘Frogger’ or write your next magnum opus; none of it matters – until the car informs you that it can’t cope with the drug-crazed road rager who has just sideswiped you.
“The next big step – this is what the engineers are actually working on at the moment – is called ‘level three’. Level three is basically taking the eyes off the road, which is frightening, if you think about it… but it works,” says Werner.
BMW has been testing level-three cars in Europe, Werner revealed.

Level four –’mind off’
“You can do whatever you want to do…” says Werner. Technology at this level will literally permit the ‘driver’ to go to sleep, pass out drunk or recline the seat to reduce the blood loss on the way to hospital. But at the end of the day the car remains ultimately subordinate to a human in the driver’s seat.

Werner believes this technology will begin to be viable in the next decade.
In essence, the L5 autonomous car can be summoned across the country, driving all the way from Perth to Sydney to pick you up at the airport (?). Tesla has already predicted this will happen sooner rather than later, but hasn’t explained how the car will refuel/recharge itself on such a long journey.
Presumably that is one of the KPIs.

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