The real revolution in self-driving vehicles is in commerce, industry, and defense – and it’s a lot closer than you think.
Google’s experimentation with self-driving vehicles gets a lot of buzz these days –and rightly so. Their technology promises to make our streets and highways safer, more efficient, and more relaxing. Wave-effect traffic jams may become a thing of the past. However, the real revolution in autonomous vehicles is going to be in the commercial and industrial sector, and the future is a lot closer than you might think.
While the buzz may be about fully autonomous vehicles, what we refer to as “self-driving” actually covers a range of modes.
- Manned: Manned autonomous vehicles are largely controlled by a human driver, but may have active features like lanekeeping, braking assist, electronic stability control, and adaptive cruise control.
- Tele-operated: A tele-operated vehicle has a human operator that is not physically in the vehicle.
- Leader-Follow (“Platooning”): In this mode, autonomous vehicles follow a human-piloted vehicle in close formation.
- Fully-Autonomous: The vehicle, to some extent, drives itself. A human operator may be on board for emergency situations.
Self-Driving Vehicles on the Highway
Japan’s New Energy and Technology Development Organization (NEDO) is experimenting extensively with self-driving trucks. Recognizing that safety is the number one concern in autonomous vehicle engineering, NEDO is equipping their vehicles with millimeter-wave radar, infrared laser, careful fail-safe systems and cutting-edge computer vision equipment.
A convoy of four experimental vehicles showed a 15% increase in fuel economy when closely following a lead, human-driven truck. “Drafting” is familiar with anybody who follows NASCAR – subsequent trucks in a convoy ride in the wake of the lead, thus meeting less wind resistance. NEDO’s system is also capable of fully autonomous operation, requiring no lead driver at all.
Volvo’s SARTRE (short for Safe Road Trains for the Environment) is another “platooning” project. With more than 6000mi on the odometer since 2012, Volvo is predicting that their road trains will hit the pavement at the end of this year. Designed to operate in ordinary traffic, SARTRE road-trains are capable of 4m (12ft) spacing at speeds of up to 90kph (55mph). In Volvo’s vision, a professional driver (in a truck, for instance) would lead convoys down highways. Because there is far less reaction delay (wireless systems communicate lead vehicle speed changes before a human nervous system would even begin to notice a change) Volvo claims the system will offer increased safety, in addition to the efficiency benefits.
A modern day Descartes might have said “Je pense donc je conduis!”
Self-Driving Vehicles in Industry
As exciting as the pavement side of these advances are, there are big changes coming to industrial vehicles. Currently Caterpillar, Komatsu, and others are developing autonomous construction, mining, and earth-moving equipment.
First fielded in 2010, Caterpillar’s enormous autonomous haulers are already at work. Capable of running 24 hours a day, the house-sized vehicles can perform their tasks in dangerous environments and at a pace that human drivers would find taxing.Developed with help from Carnegie Mellon, these self-driving behemoths are revolutionizing mining, right now. BHP Billiton Ltd. Is only one of the global companies that are already deploying autonomous industrial equipment. Caterpillar’s haulers are only one of a line of autonomous industrial vehicles, with more expected by year’s end.
Not to be outdone, Komatsu is operating autonomous mining equipment in Sweden, Australia, and Chile. Since their trials began in 2008, Komatsu’s 10 Aussie haulers have moved more than 84 million tons of material.
Self-Driving Vehicles in the Defense Industry
Since the DARPA Grand Challenges in 2004-5, no group has been keener on autonomous vehicles than the U.S. Armed Forces. The DoD’s aggressive goal of having fully one-third of operational combat vehicles automated by 2015 is certainly helping the burgeoning field along, and the companies involved are reaping valuable real-world experience in autonomous vehicle guidance.
Available as a kit that can be fitted to existing military vehicles, TerraMax is a suite of control systems, computers and sensor systems that allow fitted vehicles to operate in all four modes. TerraMax is already in use by American and British armed forces. Because war doesn’t always happen in places with conveniently paved roads, TerraMax is capable of analyzing terrain, determining grade, and controlling vehicles in situations that even pro drivers might find daunting.
This is Only The Beginning
We are witness to the birth of an industry. You can purchase a car with lane departure warnings and adaptive cruise control right now. Ditto self-parking cars. Audi, Toyota and Nissan plan to market autonomous vehicles as soon as next year. Mobileye, maker of many of the components used in autonomous vehicles, plans on a fully autonomous vehicle by 2016, and has partnered with Tesla to automate “90% of driving” by 2017.
Better brush up on your Mechatronics now – the next decade promises to be the decade of the self-driving vehicle. Comments, questions? Reach out in the comments section below, through our Google + page, or tweet us.
One day you’ll be leaving us comments from the safety of your platooning commute!
Featured Image Credit: Komatsu