I doubt that I’m alone in feeling a bit disturbed by the business media’s breathless coverage of the autonomous car and the industry’s aggressive forecasts for it.
Sure, seeing a glimpse of how Google Car is driving on surface streets in Mountain View, Calif., is exciting. But when I hear BMW predicting fully automated cars by 2025, I can’t help but say, “Oh, come on, man.”
Granted: Ten years is an eternity in the Internet era.
But picture a “driver” in an autonomous car in 2025 trying to go from Russia to Germany, or New York to Florida? Each country and, in the case of the United States, each state, has different vehicle regulations. Aligning all the laws and regulations in 10 years will be no easy task, says Luca De Ambroggi, principal analyst for automotive semiconductors at IHS Technology.
I suspect what’s discussed today as an "autonomous car" is likely to emerge in phases. These cars in each phase will come with fine print stipulating the conditions under which they must be driven.
Obviously, the automotive industry and technology suppliers have every incentive to paint a bright future for autonomous cars. It’s not just BMW. Practically every carmaker is hot to trot out multiple ADAS (advanced driving assistance system) features in their new models.
Everyone's gunning for the top overall rating of five stars from the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) -- either the Euro or North American version -- which publishes safety reports on new cars.
But when car companies start pitching ADAS as an important first step for the self-driving car era, well, let’s not hold our breath. After all, highly automated cars and autonomous cars aren’t the same thing. In fact, there’s a huge gap.
Before dissecting autonomous cars, let's take a closer look at the ADAS market.
We see automotive semiconductor suppliers elated with big growth numbers for ADAS chips. IHS, for one, recently predicted worldwide revenue for ADAS chips to “reach $2.6 billion in 2020, more than fourfold the size of the market of $643.8 million a decade earlier in 2010.”
Driving ADAS won’t be just sensor ICs, radar, and cameras, although they are a big part of what constitutes the ADAS chip market today.
Other components contributing to ADAS growth include microprocessors, microcontrollers, FPGAs, and memory. If image sensors are equivalent to “cars’ eyes,” these are the “cars’ brain,” says Ambroggi. IHS predicts that the MPU/memory segment will eventually hold 50 percent of the ADAS chip market by 2020.
How much functional integration takes place in each of these processing units, and how much more software (or apps) each processor ends up running, will depend on the system architecture and the capability of each processing unit.
There is an equal argument for car OEMs and chip vendors to opt for the modular route, Ambroggi told me. It allows easy decoupling between safety-critical hardware and non-safety-critical ones, and makes adjustment of a system more flexible, depending on the attach rate of advanced features for each model.
Either way, how many more “advanced” driver assistance features a car is designed to offer determines the level of the processors, radars, and sensors the car requires.
Evolution from ADAS to autonomous to fully autonomous
ADAS, in fact, comes into two classes: passive and active. Passive ADAS, for example, warns a driver when the car starts to veer off the center of a lane. It takes active ADAS for the car to actually intervene, by nudging the steering wheel and putting the car back on center. Active ADAS, if necessary, would brake the car if it sees imminent danger on the road ahead. In contrast, passive ADAS would simply warn the driver.
In implementing active ADAS functions such as automatic emergency braking (AEB), adaptive cruise control (ACC), and lane keeping assist (LKA), we are asking the car to interpret road signs and road conditions, make an appropriate decision, and take the wheel from the driver. Surely, this level of control would require a redundant system to be built in, so that the extra computational power would double-check the situation.
Some ADAS functions such as automatic braking, steering, and platooning are expected to emerge in the next five years, according to the IHS analyst. But again, that’s not the same thing as autonomous cars, he cautions.
In order to make a car self-driving, carmakers need to first connect all the systems together, says Ambroggi. Separate ADAS features should no longer operate independently. They need to be integrated into one coherent system so that a car can drive itself from point A to point B without driver involvement.
But even then, autonomous cars aren’t the same as “fully autonomous cars,” he says. He foresees the autonomous car initially coming with different constraints -- in terms of when, where, and how a driver can use the car in autonomous mode. More specifically, there will be specific constraints such as which streets accommodate autonomous driving, at what speed, under what weather conditions (no snow, for example), etc.
That’s a lot of restrictions, when you come to think of it.
My forecast? I’ll be surprised if I’m riding shotgun in a fully autonomous car -- without any of those constraints -- 30 years from now.
— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times