An Introduction to Autonomous Cars: How They Will Improve the Cost, Convenience, and Safety of Driving

Part One of A Three Part “How Autonomous Vehicles Work” Series

Autonomous cars (also called driverless cars, self-driving cars, or robotic cars) are no longer confined to the works of science fiction. There are already vehicles on the road today with Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) that maintain speed, brake, and maneuver with limited or no driver engagement. Building on these advancements, fully autonomous cars are on the horizon, with development and testing initiatives taking place worldwide.

While still in its early stage, autonomous car technology has the potential to revolutionize not only how people operate vehicles, but our entire transportation system. In turn, this could fundamentally alter our economy, environment, and society.

IHS Markit sees the United States as leading the world in initial deployment and early adoption of production autonomous vehicles as early as 2019. It projects Europe and China will begin adding considerable volume from 2021 onward.

IHS Markit also predicts that this technology will be first introduced to the masses in the form of “Mobility-as-a-Service” before individual ownership of autonomous vehicles ramps up. It forecasts more than 33 million autonomous vehicles will be sold globally in 2040, a substantial increase from the 51,000 units forecast for the first year of significant volume in 2021.

“More than 33 million autonomous vehicles will be sold globally by 2040”

What is an Autonomous Car?
For decades, automakers have been increasing the use of digital technology in their vehicles. Many core features, from speed and fuel gauges to temperature and audio systems, have long been digitized to enhance customer experience and improve operation.

In recent years, digital capabilities have become more sophisticated, with the introduction of ADAS features. By focusing on innovations aimed at improving cost, convenience, and safety, the automotive industry is working to develop fully autonomous vehicles that can drive themselves in all traffic conditions without a human driver.

Let’s look closer at both ADAS and fully autonomous driving.

Assisted driving (ADAS). Assisted driving capabilities are available today. With every new model year, automakers roll out new ADAS features to an expanding number of cars. These features include adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, and more. The goal of ADAS is to increase car safety by lessening the hazards associated with human driver error.

However, even the most advanced ADAS features available today require that the driver remains attentive and prepared to intervene when the system encounters situational uncertainty.

Demand for ADAS is expected to keep growing, pushed by both regulatory requirements and consumer interest in safety applications that protect drivers and passengers, and reduce accidents, according to McKinsey. The U.S. Government and European Union are requiring every new vehicle to be equipped with autonomous emergency braking systems and forward-collision warning systems by 2020. A McKinsey survey also noted car buyers have an increasing interest in ADAS applications that promote comfort and safety, such as those that assist with parking or monitoring blind spots.

Fully Autonomous Driving. To be categorized as “fully autonomous,” a car must be able to navigate between destinations without any intervention from a human driver. Self-driving cars aim to increase safety by eliminating human errors from driving situations.

Fully autonomous cars will be controlled by an onboard computer, using a combination of sensing systems, such as LiDAR, radar, and cameras, that perceive the roadways and surrounding environments. Autonomous systems are designed to drive cars safely while eliminating human failings such as cell phone distractions or drowsy inattention.

IHS Markit expects mobility service fleets to be the first use of autonomous vehicles, providing early hands-on experience with the technology and building consumer comfort. Another study conducted by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), estimates that by 2030, a substantial share of the 175 million Americans who live in the nation’s largest cities will turn to shared autonomous electric vehicle fleets.

Autonomous Car Benefits. According to Gartner, “fully autonomous vehicles offer many advantages, including improved fuel economy, reduced number and severity of crashes, a safe transportation option when drivers are tired, and using travel time for entertainment and work.” BCG also expects this change will drastically decrease pollution.

Let’s examine some of these benefits:

Safety
. According to the World Health Organization, the total number of road traffic deaths annually has reached 1.25 million, with millions more sustaining serious injuries and living with long-term adverse health consequences. In the United States, data from the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says more than 37,000 lives were lost on U.S. roads in 2016. Ninety-four percent of U.S. vehicular accidents involved human error and thus are potentially avoidable. Autonomous cars are designed to take human error out of driving actions, which should help make self-driving vehicles safer than human drivers and improve overall road safety.

94% of crashes are caused by human error.

Better, Easier Commutes. A report by the U.S. Department of Transportation found that, each year, traffic congestion and delays currently cost the average American driver in a city or suburb more than 42 hours of wasted time. According to BCG, by 2030, around a quarter of all miles driven in the U.S. could be in shared autonomous electric vehicles, which will offer consumers in large cities the lowest-cost, most convenient form of transportation. Passengers may be able to select a car that is like an office to conduct business, or a mobile living room for relaxation.

Greater Independence. Self-driving cars will provide increased mobility options for people unable to drive, including the elderly and individuals with disabilities. According to Dr. Alain Kornhauser, Director of the Program in Transportation at Princeton University, a world where autonomous cars are universally available “is basically a dream come true” for people who have trouble getting around. Mitigating transportation-related obstacles for individuals with disabilities would enable new employment opportunities for approximately two million individuals with disabilities, and save $19 billion annually in healthcare expenditures from missed medical appointments, according to The Ruderman Family Foundation.

The modified Enterprise vehicle out on the road with the help of Voyage and Velodyne.

We are living in an autonomous revolution that is poised to change radically the cost, convenience, and safety of driving.

This three-part blog series is designed to address the fundamentals of self-driving cars.

The next post will review autonomous driving fundamentals, looking at the tasks an autonomous car must perform to operate. It will explore how autonomous vehicles perceive and navigate their surroundings and the sensing technologies required to do so. The final post will look at LiDAR (light detection and ranging) and how this perception technology helps autonomous cars navigate safely.

How Autonomous Vehicles Work
Part 1: 
How They Will Improve the Cost, Convenience, and Safety of Driving
Part 2: How Autonomous Vehicles Perceive and Navigate Their Surroundings
Part 3: How LiDAR Technology Enables Autonomous Cars to Operate Safely

Share this article