Patience is a virtue: Waiting for fully autonomous vehicles to hit the road

May 23, 2017


Patience is a virtue: Waiting for fully autonomous vehicles to hit the road

A look at the future vehicle through the eyes of SAE International This article is the final of a six-article series from SAE International providing...

A look at the future vehicle through the eyes of SAE International

This article is the final of a six-article series from SAE International providing a practical look into the feasibility of connected vehicles and autonomous driving. Read the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth articles.

There comes a time when the facts must be faced, and in the case of autonomous vehicles, the time is now. From industry conferences to mainstream media, various automakers, suppliers, and industry analysts have suggested that fully autonomous vehicles will be on the road for consumer use by 2020. At SAE International, the consensus is different, so we’ll break the news as sensitively as possible.

We disagree with the notion that 2020 is possible, even under the most ideal circumstances.

Contrary to popular perception, autonomous vehicles are far more complex than slapping cameras and additional sensors on a vehicle and expecting it to drive itself. And that’s the trouble of bridging the gap between today’s driver assist features and a truly automated vehicle. According to SAE’s J3016 Levels of Automation (recently adopted by NHTSA for categorizing a vehicle’s autonomous driving capability), a level 5 vehicle is the only type of vehicle that is truly automated without the need for human intervention. The challenge is that level 5 capability is uncharted territory and will depend on existing technologies such as advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and technologies, infrastructures, laws, and regulations that simply do not exist at this time.

According to a statement by Jeremy Carlson, principal automotive analyst at IHS Markit, formal acknowledgement of SAE J3016 by the DoT “creates a clearer and in some ways simpler framework for an ongoing conversation between industry stakeholders, advocates, and state and local governments that can help direct ongoing regulatory efforts as the industry continues to progress. This action is therefore a positive step in enabling progress in the development and deployment of autonomous vehicles.”

We conducted an internal poll of top industry experts and found the median consensus for level 5 vehicles to become widely available is 2052.

“We cannot achieve reliability if we rush development,” said Jack Pokrzywa, SAE International’s Manager of Ground Vehicle Standards. “Reliability is the foundation of safety, which is essential for automated vehicles to be a commercial success. We still have some huge obstacles to overcome and much more work to be completed to bring this technology to market.”

While significant progress fueled by industry and consumer enthusiasm has been made in advancing autonomous and connected vehicle technologies, the industry is still years, maybe decades, away from conducive conditions for fully autonomous vehicle commercialization. We see the primary offenders for delaying the debut of level 5 vehicles is on-board technology and supporting infrastructure.

Unlike level 0 to level 4 vehicles, on-board systems for level 5 vehicles are able to handle all driving modes in performance of the entire dynamic driving task. Unlike other electronics, such as mobile phones, that can be rebooted with little consequence, a poorly performing autonomous vehicle can cause great damage, injury, and even loss of life if it malfunctions.

This means that the on-board technology must be bulletproof against cyber attacks, continuously well informed of the environment in which it is driving and smart enough to properly react to all hazards encountered. All of these must be improved over a human’s capability for the idea of an automated vehicle to be a success. We can tell you as the developers of industry standards that the automotive and technology industries are still determining the basic details on how all of these risks will be assessed and addressed.

One way, and perhaps the smartest way, is through a gradual adoption and expansion of technologies with the end goal of reaching level 5 capability. According to Bobbie Seppelt, a research scientist at Touchstone Evaluations and SAE standard development taskforce member, “Acceptance of autonomous vehicles relies on accessibility and a transportation network with designated roadways. Right now we’re seeing level 4 pilot programs popping up around the world in slow-speed urban environments, which give us an opportunity to test technologies on a small scale. For these programs, in the early stages of on-road deployment, we’re seeing professional drivers behind the wheel, ready to take over in the event of a malfunction. Such redundancies help to ensure safety and achievement of mobility goals for riders until level 5 technologies become a reality.”

While the levels of automation are not directly reliant on one another, information gained from testing level 2, 3 and 4 semi-automated vehicles can be used to further develop level 5 vehicles. Today’s technologies are robust enough to control vehicles that still share the driving task with a human, making them the reasonable option for further development leading up to 2020 and beyond.

As we see widespread use of semi-automated vehicles, we’ll concurrently begin to see changes in the environment in which we drive. Dedicated short range communication (DSRC) networks will become more common, connecting vehicles, pedestrians, and infrastructure. On-board technologies will also continue to improve, relying less and less on human intervention.

Standards made by SAE, ISO, and other global stakeholders will also have time to mature and gain acceptance. Instead of appearing in a single year and overtaking the roads, the rollout of fully autonomous vehicles will be an evolution of technology and culture.

“Our end goal is not to race these technologies to ‘be first’ on the road. It’s about safety, first and foremost,” said Valerie Shuman, principal at SCG, LLC and SAE technical committee member. ” We’ve made great strides forward with incremental progress but there is still a great deal of work to do.”

As we look to the future, we see four major next steps that will pave the way for progress. The first is improved digital mapping for precise positioning of vehicles, the progressive integration of vehicle-collected data in improving technologies, updating our roadways and traffic control infrastructure to accommodate automated vehicle functions, and most importantly international standards alignment activities.

Autonomous vehicles are an uncharted territory that must be developed correctly to be widely adopted. We already know the potential for these technologies is far reaching in redefining mobility, but the groundwork we are laying now will set the course for the future. By level setting on realistic expectations, standards, and top research priorities, we can bring together OEMs, suppliers, advocates, stakeholders, and global governments to make autonomous vehicles more than just hype, but rather the new mobility reality.

Shawn Andreassi is Manager of Corporate Communications at SAE International.

SAE International, a global association of more than 128,000 engineers and related technical experts, has published more than 1,600 technical standards and recommended practices for passenger cars. The organization, founded in 1905, leads the industry with advanced, unbiased knowledge to benefit society.

Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International