If the subject of driverless cars has come up in any recent conversations, Google’s Self-Driving Car project is often the first technology that springs to mind. You can see it in action for yourself in the “A First Drive” video below.
However, at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, car manufacturers such as Mercedes, Audi and BMW drew a great deal of attention with plans for their own autonomous vehicles. The spotlight is no longer solely on Google. Autonomous driving is attracting the interest of a wider audience.
But once again it’s an Internet company—rather than a car manufacturer—that is making the biggest headlines in this area. It seems that Baidu, the company behind China’s biggest search engine, plans to bring a partially autonomous car onto the streets of Beijing this year.
Is a car intelligent enough to act independently?
In contrast to other vehicles that have no human driver and therefore no need for a steering wheel and pedals, Baidu’s car still features a driver. Kai Yu—the leading expert in artificial intelligenceat Baidu—envisages that the driver’s role is closer to a rider whose horse knows the route and also knows how to reach the destination.
The horse also detects any obstacles that appear and can avoid them without any additional prompting. Continuing with this metaphor, the rider can tighten his grip on the reins if necessary, but can otherwise let go and sit back in his saddle.
“Our vision does not see the car replace the driver completely. Rather, the intention is to give the driver a greater amount of freedom.” The car is intelligent enough to act independently and adapt its decision making to changing traffic conditions according to Yu, who is also the head of Baidu’s Institute of Deep Learning.
Navigation capabilities to meet the highest demands
A special feature of self-driving cars—which Yu aims to optimise by the time the first Baidu prototypes are launched in the second half of the year—is digital navigation.
Vehicles must remain within a 20 cm margin of error
The high-resolution city maps that are used to guide a car through traffic must be very accurate and meet the most stringent requirements. “On its planned route, the vehicle must always remain within a 10 to 20-centimeter margin of error within the grid used for navigation,” says Yu. “Allowing the car to drive along a selected route or road is not enough. We must be able to control which lane the car uses.”
The algorithm that the car uses to respond to unforeseen situations—such as vehicles suddenly changing lanes or obstacles appearing on the route—also needs further improvements.
A wide range of sensors is used for this purpose, each with different tasks—from reading road signs to detecting other cars or upcoming obstacles. The interaction between these sensors feeds data to the vehicle’s internal system, allowing it to learn.
Leaps in development from Internet companies
In addition to electrically powered vehicles, the self-driving car is the area that the automotive industry will probably focus on most closely in the future — and it is here where the greatest leaps in development can be expected.
This is due not least to the fact that a significant part of the expertise stems from the IT industry and not solely from the automotive industry. Driverless cars are more than just vehicles without drivers. They are futuristic gadgets on wheels. Just take a look at the Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion research car below.
It’s why Martin Winterkorn, CEO of Volkswagen, has said: “It may come as a surprise for you, but I highly welcome the interest of Apple, Google and others in the automobile. Because that means, the car will gain more acceptance from Digital Natives.”
What’s more, Winterkorn’s counterpart at Daimler, Dieter Zetsche, also believes that the impetus provided by Internet groups can only make car manufacturers “stronger” — and he is therefore “not afraid” of them.
Value creation chain vs. partners
They are striking words. However, one thing should not be overlooked: As Zetsche says: “we currently have the entire value creation chain in our hands,” and that is without dispute. But the opposite also applies. Without the expertise of the IT giants, the car of the future would not be possible or at least would not be able to compete, despite the presence of IT masterminds within the automotive companies.
Internet of Things and other advanced technologies are essential
And this applies not only to self-driving cars but also to smart or connected cars, in which social media, the Internet of Things, and other advanced technologies already are or soon will be essential. From IBM’s study Automotive 2025: Industry without borders—which surveyed executives in the automotive industry among others—it is clear what technical features the vehicles will offer in future.
These include the ability to learn, the capacity to repair itself, a means of establishing contact, interaction and more. To achieve all of this, car manufacturers need strong partners.
With this in mind, Google—to take one example—launched the Open Automotive Alliance around 18 months ago. This is a technological alliance of industry leaders from the technology and automotive industries that builds on the Android platform and that includes Audi and Honda. Moreover, to complete the circle, Baidu has also announced a partner for its car project: BMW.
For some car manufacturers, China has been one of the most important global markets for some time. VW even has a vision of exporting electric cars to the land of the dragon within three years. If Baidu’s pilot project is a success, it could be a game-changer — in many ways.Cover image: baidu.com Image 1: Flickr — simone.brunozzi (CC BY-SA 2.0) Image 2: Flickr — heartbeaz (CC BY 2.0 )