DETROIT – Automakers have been experimenting with self-driving cars for decades. Why did they suddenly become the auto industry’s hottest new trend?
Ford’s head of research says it is due to soaring computing power and the maturation of technologies related to sensors, artificial intelligence and data acquisition.
“Why are we talking about new mobility modes and autonomy so much more now than 10 years ago? It’s because all these new technologies are within our reach financially and technically,” Ken Washington, Ford vice-president-Research and Advanced Engineering, tells the audience during his keynote address here at the 2017 SAE World Congress Experience.
“There are technologies that allow us to predict where a vehicle is going, and it can be located on the road within a few centimeters. (There are) technologies that allow us to know the road topography, predict where vehicles will be, predict and classify objects, see what is different from what is on a map, see around the vehicle in 360 degrees and plan a safe path.
“This is not science fiction; this is not a research project. This is something we are going to make happen and others are going to make happen,” he says.
Ford is predicting it will have fully autonomous vehicles on the road with a ride service in 2021. Other automakers are expected to have fully autonomous vehicles on the road about the same time.
A revolution in computing is making things possible that previously were unfathomable, Washington says, including the ability to create computers that can mimic how humans think.
These new computing paradigms include a transition from what he calls “brute force computing” to more nuanced architectures including deep neural networks that can teach machines complex tasks such as driving in all types of environments.
He says the art of programming is being rethought, which is opening up new solutions and opportunities. The availability of data and analytics is putting untold amounts of information at everyone’s fingertips at a moment’s notice.
Scientists are learning from nature and the field of bio-mimicry and bio-mimetic materials are giving automakers a new way to engineer and design materials to be lighter, stronger and more sustainable.
A little farther in the future, direct brain-to-machine interfaces will be possible, Washington says.
“The question for us is how are we going to harness this, how are we going to apply it to solving some of our biggest problems in mobility.”
Washington says autonomous vehicles alone will not solve all future congestion and mobility issues. Instead, self-driving vehicles will need to be used in conjunction with other high-tech transportation and vehicle management services to truly deliver the societal and economic benefits of accessible transportation for all.