The driver-less car has been a staple of science fiction for decades, capturing our imagination as early as the 80’s with the iconic TV series Knight Rider, and more recently in the Transformers movies. Science fiction, however, is quickly becoming science fact. People can expect to see driver-less cars commonly on our roads as early as 2020, and the global market for autonomous vehicle will skyrocket as a result, predicted to reach $42 Billion by 2025 and $7 Trillion by 2050. We believe Autonomous Vehicle Technology (AVT) is very likely to drastically change the way we live, so in this post we are going to explore the technology behind these vehicles.

What is it?

AVT uses a series of integrated guidance, navigation and control systems to move a vehicle from one to point to another. To do this the vehicle relies on many different sensors to perceive the world around it including, laser sensors, Inertial Measurement Units (IMU͛s), radars, encoders, and cameras. The computer system then takes the information from these sensors and performs a number of calculations to determine a suitable path for the vehicle to take to achieve autonomous functionality. AVT͛’s have varying levels of sophistication, ranging from no or partial automation to full automation. These levels of autonomy help determine what tasks the vehicle can perform and are based on how much human intervention is needed to fulfil a certain objectives.

The AVT industry has standardised these levels of autonomy (0-5) which are briefly described below.

  • Level 0 – No Automation: A human performs the entirety of the task.
  • Level 1 – Assisted Automation: The autonomous system controls either the lateral or longitudinal direction with a human performing the remainder of the task.
  • Level 2 – Partial Automation: The autonomous systems controls both lateral and longitudinal direction with a human performing object detection and response as well as overall supervision.
  • Level 3 – Conditional Automation: The autonomous system can perform entirety of the task provided that human intervention is available as a fall-back mechanism in case of system failure.
  • Level 4 – High Automation: While the autonomous system is engaged, no human intervention is required.
  • Level 5 – Full Automation: Human intervention is never required.

How Does it Work

Autonomous vehicles require several integrated systems to be able to operate safely and efficiently in the environment. This section will cover the fundamentals of the guidance, navigation and control systems (sometimes referred to as GNC) of an autonomous vehicle.

Navigation System

This is arguably one of the most critical components on an autonomous vehicle, it also happens to be one of the most complex systems on the vehicle. To put it simply, this is the eyes and ears of the vehicle. Its purpose is to collect data from the on board sensors and process them so that it can generate an accurate virtual map of all the objects around the vehicle. It also uses information from sensors to figure out where the vehicle is on this map in relation to objects around it.

Guidance System

This system takes the desired behaviour of the vehicle (i.e. getting from point A to point B) and works out the safest, most efficient way to guide the vehicle to the objective. The guidance system takes information that the navigation system outputs (a map of the real world and where the vehicle is on that map) and using a pre-programmed behaviour it works out what are the necessary steps the vehicle needs to take to get to point B. It usually breaks this down into a set of waypoints that the vehicle can use to move towards the objective. This system is VERY similar to the algorithms used in games like Age of Empires that make a unit/character move from one part of the map to another when you click on the screen. Additionally, this system is also responsible for higher-level decisions that the vehicle needs to make, such as deciding what to do if an obstacle suddenly appears in its path.

Control System

The control system takes the information about the world and the vehicles position from the navigation system as well the waypoints the guidance system outputs to calculate the type of forces it needs to exert on the vehicle to help it achieve its objective. It then takes this information and figures out what signals it needs to send to the vehicles motors to move the vehicle to those waypoints and then executes those functions. Overall, all of these systems need to work together in a loop passing information to one another so that the vehicle can not only react to new information it receives from its environment but also that it can correct any errors that can occur through the above processes.

Together, these components act as a ‘brain’ for an autonomous vehicle and once programmed and configured correctly, can perform tasks without the need for human operation and supervision. As these systems become more sophisticated, autonomous vehicles will be able to perform more and more complex tasks.

What can we use AVT for?

The most obvious and widely referred to example of AVT is the driver-less car. Huge companies like Google and Uber are pouring billions into their AVT research and development to get driver-less vehicles on our roads as soon as possible. Autonomous trucks are already being used in the mining industry as well as for delivery and freight services, and autonomous buses are also being trailed for community transport services with great success. It͛s not hard to imagine almost everyone using driver-less vehicles in the not too distant future.

There are however many other applications for this technology that might not be so obvious. For example, autonomous lawnmowers are widely being integrated into council lawn maintenance projects, freeing up time and money for these organisations to focus on higher priority tasks. The technology also has potential in countless other industries including surveying, parcel delivery, agriculture and factory and airport logistics to name a few, provided that the technology becomes more sophisticated and affordable. Autonomous vehicle technology is also becoming an integral part of the ͚Smart City͛ concept and IoT.

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