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Autonomous Wheelhouse: The Future of Driverless Cars


Remember when grandpa use to say, “back in my day…” Somehow the stories always seemed to involve walking in knee deep snow uphill both ways. Well, soon we’ll have to pass the torch again. I am already contemplating how to tell my daughter, “back in my day, we didn’t have these new fangled self-driving cars. We had to stay vigilant and alert! Eyes on the road at all times. 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock!”
In 2010, according to the mapsofworld.com, (great infographic) there were over 9.5 million vehicles involved in accidents that killed over 33,000 people and injured 2.2 million people in the U.S. alone. It was estimated that 90% of the accidents were caused by human error, totaling over $450 billion dollars. They state that 14% of these accidents could have been avoided by using autonomous braking alone and nearly 81% of the accidents could be avoided by using Vehicular Communication Systems (VCS) allowing cars and trucks to talk to one another on roadways.

The coming surge of autonomous vehicles will completely eliminate the risk of traffic accidents caused by human error. Machines do exactly what they are programmed to do. Sure they break down and computers can be hacked but eventually, little by little, the technology will replace human drivers. It is inevitable and I will be glad for it.

I love driving don’t get me wrong. There is nothing quite like the freedom of an open road but I hate senseless death more than I love driving. Stories like the current controversy over the affluenza teen in Texas who killed four people while drunk at the wheel are about to be a thing of the past. Really though, when was the last time you saw an open road? Even on long road trips traffic gets bad at times with accidents, construction and rush hour. I know I am not alone in my fervent hatred of traffic and congestion. I have more than once shaken a fist at someone whose blinker obviously didn’t work or they would have used it at least once during the 7 lane changes they made in a quarter-mile. Traffic is one the greatest sources of stress and anxiety in my life.

Thankfully, autonomous cars will also herald the end of bad traffic. The VCS that allow cars to talk to one another, will also allow them to plan routes, pace, make allowance for merging traffic, coordinate with traffic signals, and ultimately increase their overall speed, getting us from point A to point B quicker and safer. Personally, I can’t wait.

My opinion might not be a popular one. After all, America has a long running love affair with the automotive industry. We love muscle cars and off road vehicles, often opting for bigger trucks and SUV’s with the 4x4 package. Not that we’ll ever actually take our vehicles off road, we just like to have the option. In truth, there is no constitutional right to drive a car. It’s a privilege and one that could eventually disappear in favor of public safety.

California, Nevada, Florida, Michigan, and DC have already passed legislation supporting the autonomous vehicles. Nevada was the first state to issue an autonomous vehicle license and has driverless semi’s already on the road delivering goods. Google plans to release the software that makes all of this possible to the general public in the next 4 years according to their founder Sergey Brin. Once the technology reaches the masses, and considering the average life cycle of a car is between 6-8 years, it's only a matter of time before driverless cars become ubiquitous.

smart sensors
GM has been quietly developing their autonomous vehicle technology for their fleet of Chevrolet Volts at the campus of their technical center in Detroit in 2016. They haven’t been as outspoken as companies like Tesla Motors, Mercedes-Benz or Audi who champion the technology with grand visions of the future and outstanding demonstrations but GM is already taking features like the “Super Cruise” to market this year which allows their new Cadillac model to drive itself on freeways.

GM recently shared news of a partnership with Lyft, a new ride-sharing service similar to Uber. They plan to invest $500 million with the company in an effort to build an integrated network of the autonomous vehicles that will be available on-demand in the U.S. GM CEO Mary Barra told Wired Magazine recently, “you need embedded connectivity to make autonomous work, and that’s where General Motors has a lead.” For nearly 20 years, GM’s automobiles have been equipped with OnStar which includes that embedded connectivity. Their next step with their 2016 Cadillacs is to include vehicle to vehicle communication, their (VCS) to improve the automation. Berra stated the GM was moving beyond the traditional owner-driver model to make cars for a future when human operators are no longer necessary.

Tesla Motors recently released an automatic update through their over-the-air system that updated every Tesla sold in the U.S. over the past year. Their cars are equipped to collect data on traffic conditions and roadways and report back to their central computer. The data is analyzed, updates are made and sent back to the entire fleet of their newer vehicles. It is a self-learning system that continuously improves the performance and safety of the autopilot features and the database of road conditions. The cars are not autonomous yet but the system is already in place to update them as the software improves. The current features include: autosteer, auto lane change, self-parking a front facing radar, 360-degree ultrasonic sonar and cameras with image recognition. Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk has stated that the Autopilot program, “works almost to the point where you can take your hands off, but we won’t sat that. Almost… We tell drivers to keep their hands on the wheel just in case, to exercise caution in the beginning. Over time, long term, you won’t have to keep your hands on the wheel – we explicitly describe this as beta… It will get more and more refined over time. Eventually, we want it to automatically have your car put itself to bed in your garage.”

Tesla was not first automaker to include some of the autonomous features in its automobiles but it is the first to send the features out through a wireless update. These updates could make the vehicles fully autonomous in the next three years, putting it ahead of the 2020 deadline companies like Google, Nissan, and Mercedes working towards.

Ford recently tested its LiDAR system (Light Detection and Ranging) for self-driving cars on Michigan’s wintry roads slick with ice and snow. LiDAR “uses light in the same way a bat or dolphin uses sound waves, and can bounce infrared light off everything within 200 feet to generate a real-time 3D map of the surrounding environment” according to InformationWeek’s website. This system keeps cars on the road even when they can’t see roadway markings, something that Tesla, who doesn’t use the LiDAR system in its vehicles, has struggled with because of poorly painted roadways in California. Ford announced their fully autonomous Fusion Hybrid sedans would be rolled out in California next year.

autonomous cars
A survey of the automotive industry landscape and the aggressiveness of CEO’s to adopt new technology and bring innovations to market only goes to prove my point. Our children will soon see the era of the manual driver as something retro or nostalgic, that is, if they ever look up from their smart phones and tablets long enough to care. After all, their fast passed world has no place for long lines at the DMV or driving tests. Theirs is a world of artificially intelligent personal assistants and invisible robotic chauffeurs. Better start working on your “back in my day” speeches now. Stay ahead of the curve.


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Our home office is centrally located just outside Dallas. Over the years we have built a nationwide presence by completing many projects throughout the U.S. We specialize in automation, equipment & conveyor installations, rigging, mezzanine & structural steel fabrication and erection, machine moving & rigging, plant equipment decommissioning, and plant maintenance. Our projects range from half-day preventative maintenance procedures to turnkey assembly/production line installations.

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