BLOG: The development and growth of autonomous cars

Blog by Dan Dixon, Communications Manager for Universal Components UK:

The autonomous car market is expanding at an existential rate and a whole host of driverless vehicles are expected on our roads within the next five years. Critics of this innovative technology have clearly stated negative feelings towards the public launch of driverless vehicles, many fearing the safety of pedestrians, others convinced that travelling will become more problematic whilst thinking traffic is likely to increase in huge force.

But many of those who are judging fail to know that the experimentation of autonomous cars unfolded over 80 years ago, and about 30 years later in the 1950s we experienced promising trials that turned the likelihood of autonomous cars ever being accessible into a realistic prospect. Skipping to modern day progress, we have created more advanced and challenging ways of testing the vehicles structure, quality and longevity. For Example, The DARPA Grand Challenge is just one event that encouraged the transformation of autonomous dreams into a reality.

DARPA 2004 – a significant event in testing and development

In 2004, DARPA arranged its first ever long-distance competition for autonomous vehicles which involved navigating 142 miles across rugged terrain with a time limit of 10 hours. Fifteen vehicles participated and not a single one reached the finish line (the best vehicle completing only 7.5 miles).

A year on and the event became even more of a challenge (in terms of the journey, participants and prize money) but to give the cars a chance of reaching the end of the journey, the course length was chopped by 10 miles. Many fanatics and industry folk didn’t expect anything to change in terms of progress but, from nowhere, there was a big surprise.

Stanford University’s autonomous Volkswagen Touareg aka ‘Stanley’ came out on top, completing the course in less than seven hours. And if you thought that was progress, another four vehicles also completed the track including vehicles from Carnegie Mellon University, The Gray Insurance Company and Oshkosh Truck Corporation.

The comparison in events clearly shows just how quickly the development of these vehicles changes within the space of 12 months. The first event in 2004 concluded with a bit of an anti-climax without a single car making it past the finishing line and with arguably a much easier overall journey. Then just a year later, five vehicles made it past the finishing line having completed more than 100 turns, steep passes and sharp drop offs, plus a few tunnels for good measure.

It’s encouraging to see just how positively the testing process has advanced, and the more challenging it becomes, the sooner we’re likely to see them being tested on the roads, and who knows, perhaps available for commercial use in the near future (so the market predicts).

How exactly do driverless vehicles operate?

Any autonomous technology is fascinating and although we all grasp the idea and concept, how exactly do autonomous vehicles operate? How can they steer themselves through obstacles? Is it possible for all road rules to be adhered to? Autonomous vehicles operate via the use of a combination of sensors, cameras and a processor.

The radar sensors placed in several parts of the car are able to monitor the position of nearby and oncoming vehicles whilst the video cameras were created to detect traffic lights, keep a safe distance from other vehicles, read road signs effectively whilst keeping a look out for pedestrians and any other possible obstacles.

The autonomous car market is expected to grow rapidly

An analysis by the Boston Consulting Group found that the autonomous vehicle market will grow significantly within the next two decades. By 2035, they’ve projected 12 million fully autonomous vehicles to be sold globally each year along with 18 million partially autonomous vehicles.

The study was put together using many elements of research including an analysis of several autonomous vehicle technologies and economics, US consumer survey data along with a host of detailed interviews with automobile company executives, suppliers and technology companies around the world.

In the UK, the size and worth of the market is expected to be worth around £33 billion, with partially autonomous vehicles being worth around £29 billion, and fully autonomous cars at £4.8 billion.

These figures are clearly backed up by the amount of patent filings submitted by the most profitable brands in the automotive market. As of June 2016, Audi had already submitted 292 patent filings and have projected the launch of the autonomous Audi A8 to be this year. Whether it is for test or commercial purpose, progress is being made thick and fast and Audi aren’t the only ones who are planning the release of autonomous vehicles in the near future.

Tesla, Toyota and Nissan are all expecting the release of their models by 2020, and it has been concluded that Tesla are now only producing cars that have full self-driving hardware. Perhaps this will eventually become second nature for each manufacturer, what are your thoughts?