Autonomous vehicles are slowly but steadily reshaping the way people work, travel, and live. While we do not have the Jetson’s flying Space Car yet, the innovations and technology driving autonomous vehicles means this is a real possibility. 

From autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) reducing workplace accidents to autonomous farming equipment helping to fill in skilled labor gaps to robotaxis moving tourists from point A to point B – autonomous vehicles are here, and the future looks bright. 

However, the design, development, and market adoption of autonomous vehicles is slowed by a range of real-world challenges. Supply chain pressures and delays, consumer skepticism, cybersecurity threats, and technology costs are just a few of the barriers holding AV adoption and application back. 

In this blog we take a deep dive on autonomous vehicles, looking at:

  • What an AV is and the history of these vehicles
  • Level 5 autonomy and why it’s so hard to achieve
  • Real-world applications for autonomous vehicles
  • The benefits of autonomous vehicles
  • The trends shaping autonomous vehicle design, application, and adoption

What is an Autonomous Vehicle?

An autonomous vehicle (AV) is a vehicle that drives itself using a range of in-vehicle sensors, AI, and technologies including LiDAR, advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), GPS, cameras, and ultrasound. 

Examples of AVs include driverless and autonomous tractors, self-driving cars, AMRs, autonomous bulldozers, autonomous underwater vehicles, autonomous transport trucks, and more. 

The roots of AVs can be traced as far back as the 1920’s with the radio-controlled “American Wonder”, a 1926 Chandler developed by Houdina Radio Control. 

Recent innovations and expectations for AVs are linked to developments in the 1980s leading to the 1991 passage of the ISTEA Transportation Authorization bill to demonstrate an automated vehicle and highway system by 1997.

Fast forward to the 2000’s, the Internet, IoT, smart-technology, AI, machine learning, GPS, radar, and ADAS – and we have high expectations for AVs including self-driving cars, robotaxis, and even the Flying Space Car. 

As excited as lawmakers, vehicle manufacturers, and inventors were about the prospect of AVs, the fulfillment of this technological promise is coming – just not as quickly as many had hoped. 

Not even Elon Musk predicted delivering on self-driving autonomous cars would be so hard, tweeting on July 3, 2021: “Generalized self-driving is a hard problem, as it requires solving a large part of real-world AI. Didn’t expect it to be so hard, but the difficulty is obvious in retrospect.

The Challenges in Reaching Level 5 Autonomy

In 2020, experts predicted that 1 in 10 vehicles will be fully autonomous by 2030. However, it is harder than many realized to align technology, legislation, consumer adoption, the logistics of parts manufacturing and assembly, and system expertise to make this a reality. 

To be considered fully autonomous, vehicles must achieve Level 5 driving autonomy defined by the Society of Autonomous Engineers (SAE) and adopted by the US Department of Transportation.

The levels are best described with an image. This is the latest SAE image: 

Driving is not a simple task. Whether it’s backing out of a driveway, navigating a 6-lane highway, or maneuvering a tractor in a field – there are thousands of decisions, distractions, and factors that come into play.

Beyond driving being a complicated task, key challenges in reaching Level 5 autonomy include the ability to address:

  • Weather and environmental conditions including snow, rain, sun glare, wind, etc. 
  • Cybersecurity risks and threats
  • Legislation and regulatory standards
  • Existing road and highway infrastructure
  • Consumer acceptance

Complicating this for autonomous equipment and machinery such as tractors, combines, and trucks is the lack of curbs and road markers for LiDAR system references, the additional tasks this equipment needs to perform, and equipment and machinery add-ons such as buckets, blades, booms, and shovels. 

Putting Autonomous Vehicles to Work

The business applications of AVs are far-reaching and limitless. Consider these examples of how AVs are used today and what they mean for the future:  

  • AMRs are used in manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution for a range of applications from shipping to receiving. Key examples of AMRs include pallet movers and stackers, tuggers, and forklifts. 
  • Semi-autonomous and self-driving construction equipment is being used to perform repetitive tasks including excavating, bricklaying, demolition, welding, hauling, pouring concrete, and drilling. 
  • Semi-autonomous trucks and freight movement with truck platooning is becoming more common. The ACEA describes truck platooning as the linking of 2 or more trucks in a convoy, using connectivity technology and automated driving support systems. This technology reduces fuel consumption, allows trucks to travel more closely together, reduces traffic congestion, and helps address labor shortages. 
  • Semi-autonomous and self-driving farm equipment including tractors, combines, planters, and sprayers are being used worldwide, allowing farm owners and operators to remotely control their equipment.
  • Autonomous mining equipment: mining is one of the early adopters of autonomous solutions. An autonomous haulage system (AHS) is technology that equips machines with vehicle controllers, a high-precision GPS, an obstacle detection system, and a wireless network system. Like AMRs, the autonomous fleet is able to operate predictably through prescribed route mapping and utilize enhanced safety features such as collision avoidance systems.
  • Autonomous last mile delivery with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being used to transport and deliver a range of products including food, emergency supplies, healthcare materials (including organs for transplant), and household goods. 
  • Autonomous underwater vehicles have been widely used since the 1960s for ocean and underwater exploration, mapping, and surveillance. 
  • Robotaxis were recently rolled out on public roads in Shenzhen, China. These driverless cars, including the Fiat Chrysler Pacifica, navigate through the city completely autonomously, transporting people, packages, and even dogs. 

The Benefits of Autonomous Vehicles for Companies and People

From solving labor shortages to streamlining productivity to making it easier to park your car, AVs have a deep range of benefits for companies and people. 

  • Solving labor shortages. There is a global shortage of skilled labor, hampering every industry from construction, trucking, mining, manufacturing, robotics, farming, through to warehousing and distribution. Autonomous last mile delivery, for example, means that hospitals do not need to rely on costly planes and pilots to transport organs, saving time, money, and lives. 
  • Improving efficiencies. AVs such as autonomous tractors, haulers, combines, and last-mile delivery AUVs can operate 24/7 with little to no human intervention. This frees employees to work on more demanding tasks, eliminates scheduling challenges, and helps to limit the wear-and-tear on equipment. 
  • Creating safer workplaces. Across a range of industries, employees are dealing with workplace safety issues such as repetitive tasks, overscheduling (due to labor shortages), risky working environments, traffic collisions and accidents including forklift tip overs, and general fatigue due to work demands. Whether it’s the robust safety features of AMRs or the use of autonomous underwater vehicles for deep-sea exploration, workplace safety can be increased and more easily monitored. 
  • Reducing operating costs. According to an article by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, the construction and mining technology investor Fundamental estimates an average increase in mine productivity of 30% when AVs are used. The company attributes this to longer production hours, a 15% reduction in load and unit costs, and a 40% improvement in tire life due to a reduction in quick accelerations and abrupt steering. 
  • Environmental and climate benefits. The electrification of AVs would mean less greenhouse gas emissions, less air pollution, and less vehicles on the road and in the workplace. With advances in IoT-enabled farm, construction, and mining equipment we will see less damage, erosion, and waste of natural resources.  
  • Safer roads. Cars, trucks, heavy machinery, and equipment do not cause accidents – humans do. One of the big promises of AVs is in making roads safer with smarter vehicles that  behave predictably and are not prone to distraction, human error, or lapses in judgement. 

From self-driving robotaxis through to autonomous forklifts and truck platooning, companies and people benefit from smarter, safer, more efficient, and less costly ways of working, living, and traveling. 

We are in the early days of understanding the full potential and benefits of AVs, but as manufacturers get closer to full autonomy, there will be a continued trickle-over in improvements for both companies and individuals. 

4 Trends Shaping the Autonomous Vehicle Industry

These 4 trends stand out as keys to shaping the future of the AV industry and moving it closer to Level 5 autonomy: 

  1. Automotive standards: we are seeing the adoption of a range of autonomous vehicle standards including cybersecurity standards, functional safety development processes, guidance on software updates, and improved management of open-source licensing and compliance. 
  • Vehicle-to-everything (V2X): machine learning, AI, and 5G networks combine to enable V2X technology, allowing AVs to share details such as location, speed, and traffic conditions with other AVs and road/highway/traffic infrastructure. This should ultimately mean safer, less congested, and more efficient roads and travel.
  • Truly smart vehicles: advances in AI and machine learning mean that vehicles will be smart enough to self-diagnose problems, predict and prevent breakdowns, adjust routes in real-time, detect cybersecurity threats and risks, provide personalized in-vehicle infotainment, and protect against theft.
  • Autonomous Things (AuT): this involves improving and enhancing machines with sensors and AI-based analytical capabilities, allowing machines to make data-based decisions autonomously. For AVs, along with enabling V2X technology, AuT helps improve computer vision with intelligent cameras and sensors, enables building 3D high-definition maps with real-time traffic flow, traffic light, construction, and accident information, and detection and awareness of pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders, stray basketballs, and other road concerns. Ultimately AuT is critical to achieving Level 5 autonomy. 
Credit: Hanna-Barbera Productions

We cannot predict the future, but we do know we’re much closer today to the Jetsons and their Flying Space Car than we were in 2018. 

Advances in AI, machine learning, LiDAR, ADAS, autonomous haulage, IoT and AuT, and public acceptance of autonomous vehicles and robots mean the gains in innovation and development are happening quickly. 

This is the time to start learning how automation, AMRs, and AVs can benefit your company and your employees. From improving worker safety through to improving productivity – the benefits of automation are clear. 

Contact us to discuss how your company can benefit from our AMR technologies and capabilities.