Road robots come to the rescue

1 year ago
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The development of vehicles that can drive without a human is a unique challenge. There are many kinds of events that fully autonomous vehicles need to be ready to process in milliseconds, and mistakes can have serious consequences. Addressing these challenges requires innovation in a number of areas such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, advanced sensors, simulation software that can mimic real driving, and computing platforms to evaluate system performance.

In 2007, I joined the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) Urban Challenge to test and develop autonomous vehicles (AVs). I distinctly remember the first moment our Junior car drove itself through the parking lot with the help of software I had been working on just a few hours earlier. It was a turning point for me. It became clear that this was the most impressive and interesting engineering problem of our century, to which I have devoted all my time ever since.

Over the past decade, the autonomous vehicle industry has solved many technical problems. As of 2020, for example, residents of Arizona’s East Phoenix Valley can open the Waymo One app, hail a cab, and get where they need to go in a driverless car. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this breakthrough. Self-driving cars are now entering a new phase of scaling and expansion that will make 2023 a key year for self-driving cars to benefit more people in more places.

The progress that the industry will make in 2023 will be the result of years of testing and deployment of AV in different regions. As a result, the AV industry is now focused on embracing versatile driving technologies as it moves towards increased commercial deployment. This is important because AVs don’t make commercial sense if they can’t easily work in multiple locations. In the United States, the same technology should be able to handle the traffic, hills, and fog of San Francisco; Phoenix’s scorching temperatures and rainy season; cold New York winters and heavy traffic; and the Los Angeles highway. He must also be able to safely and consistently drive different types of vehicles.

In 2023, this will lead to AV rollout in multiple markets. Over the years, many AV companies—we, Waymo, and others, Aurora, Cruise, Motional, Nuro, and Oxbotica, just to name a few—have made tremendous progress in cities as diverse as Las Vegas and San Francisco in the US and Oxford in England. Given the fundamental complexity of the issue, consolidation in the AV industry is inevitable and will continue. However, building on the overall technological progress at the core of the industry, we will also see rapid and exciting expansion. Racers in San Francisco and cities Wuhan and Chongqing in China, they can already stop cars without a driver in the front seat. In the coming year and beyond, we will see the industry enter a new phase as fully autonomous taxi services expand rapidly into new markets.

Trucking will also see progress. Autonomous trucks are already hauling thousands of tons of cargo for Wafer, UPS, FedEx, Coca Cola– and even Girl Scouts of North Texas. In 2023, autonomous large rigs will become more common, especially in Texas and Arizona. AV companies will partner more with carriers, freight brokers and major consumer brands. Trucking volumes will increase, demonstrating how drones can help unravel supply chains and fill a huge shortage of truck drivers. (According to the International Road Transport Union, the world short over 2.6 million truck drivers in 2021). If you live in the US Southwest, there’s a good chance your new coffee table, sofa, or winter sweater will ship offline.

Ultimately, the autonomous movement of people and goods will have the same impact on our daily lives, economies and societies as the invention of the automobile itself. The use of autonomous technology to safely transport people and goods could create hundreds of billions of dollars of economic value and increase the mobility of more people who need it. In 2023, as more people in more and more places ride AV, we’ll see a preview of what the future with AV will look like – and how much closer it is than you think.

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