Autopilot: The end of traditional driving?
Autonomous driving systems are being adopted by an increasing number of brands and point the way to a future predicted by many analysts: self-driving cars. Are we ready for this technological disruption? Here we reveal its secrets.
Autonomous driving, in which cars perform manoeuvres for the driver, is increasingly present in the equipment of current models, but is especially relevant in electric cars. “There is a clear reason for this,” says Gorka Gómez, an industrial engineer who, after working at various automotive firms, including Mercedes-Benz, has established himself as an independent consultant focusing on the automotive industry. “It is easier to implant chips and sensors in the simplicity of an electric motor than in the complexity of a combustion engine. In the case of the latter, two very different worlds are combined: on the one hand, the mechanical world, with engines which, no matter how advanced, are based on a concept more than a century old and, on the other, the electronic and digital world, consisting of pure ‘software’; and the two are not always entirely compatible.”
“It is easier to implant chips and sensors in the simplicity of an electric motor than in the complexity of a combustion engine.”
Gorka Gómez, independent technology consultant
That is why it is not surprising that the most advanced system that comes closest to total autonomous driving is that developed by a pioneering high-performance electric car brand: Tesla. It is called Autopilot and has given rise to much debate in recent years but, above all, it has excited those in the industry and outside it (and the specialised press in particular) with its capacity to accelerate and brake, take curves and even change lanes. Tesla has already obtained licences nearly everywhere in the world to legalise circulation with its Autopilot system. In Spain, the General Directorate of Traffic (DGT) is currently working on the first regulation to regulate autonomous vehicles. The rapid spread of this system has sparked debate on the future of autonomous driving, and has even raised moral issues: Who does the car prioritise in case of danger of someone being run over? The driver or the pedestrian? But above all: Are we prepared to place our physical integrity and that of our family in the hands of a machine?
Be that as it may, all analysts agree that autonomous driving will become a reality in a few years’ time and will almost completely replace the driver’s role. And for many, Autopilot is currently the most advanced solution. “At present, all our models include our most advanced version, 2.0, which equips our flagship, the S Model,” we are told by the Sales Department of Tesla Spain, but they also add that: “It will be constantly updated, not only by future versions, but also via software.” The brand itself uploads them to the website and the user only has to download them, in a manner similar to the way in which we update our mobile phones. For example, in recent months Autopilot 2.0 has added a couple of functionalities. It has increased the speed at which it can keep the car in its lane from 88 to 129 km/h, and has now enabled remote driverless parking. What lies behind this system which, up until a few years ago, seemed like science fiction? We are going to reveal the secrets.
Cars that “see”, “feel”… and “learn”
The models that include the Autopilot system have 12 long-range ultrasound sensors distributed throughout the vehicle that analyse different variables of the surroundings, which allows it to change lanes and, before very long, even take motorway exits if the driver programmes it to do so via a future software update. The brand warns that “although it might seem so, it is not a fully autonomous driving system, so the driver cannot divert his attention from what the car is doing at any time.”
The sensors are connected to countless different car components including, among others, the brakes. As publicly stated by Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, “thanks to this, the Autopilot is capable of preventing 50% of accidents, since it adjusts the speed and even stops the car in the event of danger due to the proximity of an object.”
The system also has 360º vision cameras that function like the car’s “eyes”: it detects traffic signals within a range of 250 metres, including flashing speed limit signals, dividing lines on the asphalt (essential for changing lanes) and pedestrians on the road.
To activate the Autopilot, we only have to lightly pull the lever located behind the wheel twice. In order to regain control of the car, we only have to slightly turn the wheel. The system’s operation is not rigid: it ‘learns’ from other Tesla models, since they are all connected through a network to evolve towards safer driving.
And what do the other brands do?
The Autopilot is possibly the autonomous driving system most widely known, including by people outside the sector; not only because it is a pioneer but also because of the effective communication campaign of a brand such as Tesla. But there are other companies that are moving up a gear in this regard. Mercedes-Benz has presented its Drive Pilot in the new E Class, which functions in a similar way, and Cadillac and BMW have announced that they could have a fully autonomous system by the end of the decade. In the case of the latter, at the end of last year BMW signed a collaboration agreement with IBM to jointly explore the cognitive capabilities of IBM Watson (the company’s powerful artificial intelligence computer) to personalise the driving experience and create much more intuitive driver support systems in future cars.
These are only some examples, but one thing is clear: as their electric models evolve, the leading manufacturers are following suit with their autonomous driving systems. Are the driver’s days numbered?