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Autonomous vehicles' Lego blocks take shape


As technology races ahead, government is doing its best to remove obstacles for fully autonomous vehicles to hit the road, soon: 25,000 lives depend on it. While it’s encouraging for the automotive industry that President Obama would propose a 10‑year, $4 billion investment to accelerate the development and adoption of safe driverless vehicles, the organic dissemination of technologies such as precise positioning, sensor fusion and V2X communication are already achieving many of the goals outlined in the proposal.

The proposal was announced mid January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit and is intended to remove roadblocks to the integration of “innovative, transformational automotive technology that can significantly improve safety, mobility, and sustainability.” With up to 20,000 people losing their lives through avoidable automobile accidents, the stakes are high indeed. The budget proposal would provide nearly $4 billion over 10 years for pilot programs to test connected vehicle systems in designated corridors throughout the US, and work with industry leaders to ensure a common multistate framework for connected and autonomous cars.

Such action at the Federal level is critical in the US to avoid state‑by‑state action that would make an autonomous vehicle or vehicle feature that is approved in one state, illegal or non‑compliant in another.

“We are on the cusp of a new era in automotive technology with enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and transform mobility for the American people,” said US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, commenting on the proposal.

While governments over the world are working to figure out what to do with autonomous cars and their onward march, it’s easy to overlook how the technologies that will soon enable autonomous vehicles are already having an effect.

Take accurate positioning for example. This is where technology has already saved lives, improved sustainability, while also reducing the need to expand transportation infrastructure. With precise navigation augmented by data analysis, social apps such as Waze have allowed drivers to avoid traffic jams and make optimum use of the transportation infrastructure already available. This capability has already increased security, saved lives and reduced emissions by reducing unnecessary time spent on the road, but that’s just a start. Technologies that will have a much greater impact on safety are emerging rapidly, and these are all forming the blocks that will bring us to fully autonomous vehicles.

Take vehicle‑to‑infrastructure (V2I) for instance, where vehicles can communicate over dedicated low‑latency wireless channels to traffic infrastructure, such as traffic lights, to ensure a vehicle doesn’t make an unexpected or illegal turn. Technical standards such as IEEE 802.11p provide for the required low‑latency wireless access in vehicle environments (WAVE) for V2I and vehicle‑to‑vehicle (V2V) communications.
Now the combination of precise positioning and V2I/V2V allows cars to communicate their precise location with each other and with infrastructure to prevent collisions. With this communication established, vehicles can also share sensor information, such as relative trajectory, steering position, braking, and other relevant data. Together with visual aids such as heads‑up displays (HUDs) this fusion of sensor data is already making it easier to predict the actions of nearby vehicles to ensure your safety and the safety of those around you.

As inspiring as Audi’s R8 Super Bowl commercial may be, where an aging ex‑astronaut gets a second chance to feed the need for speed (, it’s good to know that vehicles can communicate with each other, if we get carried away. With these various technologies now working together, we’re clearly in the fast‑lane toward fully autonomous vehicles that communicate with everything (V2X). How and when that officially happens is to be determined, but for now, designers need to get up and running with the latest fully automotive‑qualified modules for positioning, communication (both short‑range and cellular) and sensor fusion. These modules should also be advanced enough to still be considered on the cutting edge after going through a typical automobile design cycle, which can be two to three years, at least.

This latter point is interesting as right now, someone, somewhere, is putting the elements together that will form the first legal autonomous vehicle. It may be Google and an automotive partner with advanced artificial intelligence (AI) thrown in, or it may be a dark horse player, it’s impossible to tell. Regardless, the designs are happening right now and for developers it’s a race to combine their ideas and software with the most reliable and qualified V2X, positioning and cellular platforms.

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