Fast and furious - the road ahead for autonomous driving

Anders Hardebring
21 April 2017

The car industry is on the verge of re-inventing itself and the way we drive, thanks to artificial intelligence. So buckle up - we’re in for a ride!

Since the 1960s self-driving cars have led a dwindling existence as visionary prototypes in the dungeons of various labs. For years, researchers and engineers have endeavored to make a vehicle intelligent enough to predict what’s happening outside its own control, without much progress. It simply has been impossible since the necessary tech just wasn’t on hand.

Today however, technology has improved to the point where car makers are transitioning from being regular, old school automotive companies into high-tech players in the software business, just like what has already happened in the sky and on water.

So, what does this mean for the intelligent vehicles industry?

The rapid overhaul of the way vehicles are composed is enabled by a smorgasbord of embedded connectivity applications plus smart sensors, tracking your comfort and safety onboard. Thanks to Ford and other manufacturers your car can soon offer a multitude of new features - things we didn’t even know we needed. An example is wearables, like fitness trackers, which will come in handy if you’re falling asleep behind the wheel (or the non-existing wheel). The old “hands on the wheel, eyes on the road” mantra is becoming obsolete. Who would have thought, right?

“As consumers choose to share their data with us, we want to be able to use that data to help make their lives better”

- Mark Fields, CEO of Ford in The Verge

Alongside the car companies’ attempts to develop super-human connected automotive tech, cloud-based platforms are built to support it. But what happens when there is low or even no Internet connection at all? This conundrum has led to the invention of small, real-time services at the edge that work on-demand and only for specific functions. At the Edge data allows the car manufacturers to leapfrog across the connectivity obstacles and as a result fully and semi-autonomous cars are driving around on our streets today.

“When it comes to modern technology, we see a rapid development when it comes to all different parts of our value chain”

- Klas Bendrik, CIO Volvo Car Group in V3

Google and Tesla have both contributed to this development. Amazon, Ford and Uber are not far behind.

Six years ago Google initiated Google Brain, a project aimed at creating an artificial neural network system. For a non-engineer the project description sounds like a chapter in an Isaac Asimov book. Or George Orwell, depending on how you see it. But Lo and Behold, in November last year Google’s Translate was re-launched using Google Brain to translate between languages it doesn't even know.

Google (being Google) also took the opportunity to jack up their AI business based on the same principles which brought  Waymo, a 100% autonomous car, into existence. Google even went so far as to not trust humans at all - thus the car has no steering wheel. To date Waymo has logged hundreds of thousands of miles without any incidents whatsoever. It’s little known how much the Silicon Valley giant has invested in this venture, but our guess is that the AI components have swallowed a substantial part of the budget.

"We're serious about creating full self-driving cars that can help millions of people. To do that, we have to oversee both the self-driving software and self-driving hardware."

- John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo in CNBC

But are there any real opportunities for the automotive ecosystem players? Yes. Connectivity is an ever increasing and essential part of our digital life and it continues to infiltrate just about everything, even our cars. The industry around smart vehicles will most likely create a whole new global marketplace. According to a recent Mckinsey report the emerging automotive business models could be worth a staggering 1.5 trillion USD by 2030 - per year. Who doesn’t want in on that?

Finally, do you remember the popular movies about the human-like racing car Herbie? No? The fictionary Herbie was a self-aware 1963 Volkswagen Beetle Model 117 Deluxe Sunroof Sedan. This endearing little car, driving around, minding his own business, was captured and remorselessly bought and sold throughout uncountable film sequels. In the final movie Herbie falls in love with a cute yellow Volkswagen New Beetle, proving that cars do have a heart.

And now they have brains too.