In the Direction of Driverless Cars - Automobility
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In the Direction of Driverless Cars

The first engine predates the Benz Patent-Motorwagen by over 100 years. The first steam engine of 1712 was not designed for cars; rather, it was primarily used to pump water from mines. This, along with many other seemingly unrelated advances, was a critical step in the direction of horseless carriages. Despite the success of steam in manufacturing and railway locomotion, it was not until 1885 that Karl Benz would release what is now known as the “world’s first automobile,” the Benz Patent-Motorwagen. As you can see below, the first automobile did not have a windshield to protect its passengers from the elements, nor a seat belt in the event of an accident, nor even gears to facilitate climbing uphill.

A few years later, believing in his invention and understanding the power of marketing, Bertha Benz, Karl Benz’s wife, embarked on the first long distance road trip — a 100 kilometer drive from Mannheim to Pforzheim with her two sons to visit her mother. This trip presented a whole new set of problems to solve. Since there were no gas stations at the time, she stopped at pharmacies along the way to purchase ligroin, a substance used instead of gas. Also, lacking gears, her sons needed to get out and push the wagon over hills. In spite of these hurdles, the historic trip was a success. She had proven the viability of automobiles to skeptics, and, based on her feedback, Karl added a gear to the next model to assist with driving uphill.

Pioneers of the horseless carriage were paving a new way for mobility. Today, we see the same ingenuity with the advent of driverless cars. The underlying technologies that drive this change include: Artificial Intelligence, Connectivity, and Sensors.

Artificial Intelligence. Recent advances in AI power driverless cars. AI is what tells the vehicle how to drive. It can control many components of the car, but for the purposes of driving, it primarily deals with speed and steering because when you drive, these are the main variables you adjust.

Connectivity. This is the constantly evolving infrastructure that we use to navigate ourselves. This includes ready access to the internet, and apps like Waze and Google Maps. In order for a car to get from point A to point B, it needs to know what turns to make, and roads to take. In addition, information like traffic levels and roadblocks are really useful in optimizing your route.

Sensors. Lastly, sensors allow the car to see. As humans, we use our eyes and ears to drive. When making decisions, we primarily rely on visual cues gathered by looking through the front windshield and checking our mirrors and blind spots. We are also always listening for any honking, or screeching noises that might indicate an accident. Today, sensors focus on seeing. They do this through a combination of LiDAR, radar, and camera data. By continuously collecting visual data in this format, frame by frame, a car registers its surroundings, and through its AI engine, determines the best next action.

As each of these technologies advances, we inch closer to realizing the driverless phenomenon we’ve been hearing about for some time. The transition from horse-drawn carriage to horseless sparked its own debates, and the main selling points of these machines included: “cars were faster than horses, didn’t tire, consumed less fuel, never ran away and were also cleaner. Some even reasoned that cars would eliminate traffic congestion, because an automobile only took up half the space of a horse and buggy!”

It’s hard to imagine the horse-filled streets of Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century, but it’s easy, with hindsight, to see what opportunities the horseless machines introduced. Driverless cars offer a torrent of innovation and opportunity — from the designs for new cars, to the way in which cities are built. To push this creativity forward, we need people willing to explore new applications, and drive down unbeaten paths.

Jeff Russo is a business analyst at Automobility Ltd — A Shanghai based automotive strategic advisory and consulting firm that focuses on identifying new technology that will be required for the next generation of vehicles, and helping industry understand and explore opportunities in China.

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