The self-driving future: what’s driving the revolution?


Once confined to the imaginative realms of science fiction novels and movies, driverless vehicles have transcended the bounds of imagination to become a reality, looking set to become a familiar sight on our roads in the not-too-distant future.

The history of driverless vehicles dates back to 1977, when the first semi-autonomous car was created, capable of tracking white road markers at speeds below 20mph. However, it was not until the start of the 21st century that significant strides in driverless technology were made.

This period marked a turning point for the evolution of autonomous vehicles (AVs). Tech companies and auto giants began investing heavily in research and development, with the race fuelled by technological advancements, transforming the concept of driverless cars into a reality.

The promise of these vehicles extends far beyond their novel appeal. At the forefront is the potential for enhanced safety, reducing the human error involved in driving a normal car, such as distracted driving or speeding. The sensors in driverless vehicles also constantly monitor their surroundings, allowing the vehicles to react to dangers and hazards much quicker than a human is able to.

There are other advantages too, such as reduced traffic congestion, environmental benefits and cost savings.

So who – and what – is driving the AV revolution? We shine a spotlight on the organisations, groups and projects that are at the forefront of this transformative journey.


An integrated approach to development

Waymo, originally known as the ‘Google Self-Driving Car Project’, has emerged as a leader in the autonomous vehicle space – and seems to be going from strength-to-strength.

As a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, the organisation certainly has robust financial support, but it is their innovative approach that has meant the company has hit many milestones before its competitors.

Waymo develops and employs its own proprietary technology within its driverless vehicles. This strategy is not only cost-effective but also ensures that every component of the vehicles is inherently designed to operate in unison, to improve reliability and performance. This integrated approach is reflected in their safety record, with Waymo vehicles reportedly being 6.7 times less likely than human-driven cars to be involved in crashes that result in injury.

The company has expanded its robotaxi service across four major cities, with the company recently announcing that it is set to test its vehicles on high-speed highways – the first robotaxi firm to do so.


AI: a more intuitive system

Is artificial intelligence (AI) a key driver of future developments in autonomous vehicle technology?

Rather than using extensive sensor suites and learning pre-mapped routes inputted by engineers, Wayve uses deep learning AI tech to process videos of humans driving, interpret the data and navigate roads in real-time – both in cars and vans. This unique approach – which it calls AV2.0 – enables the system to learn from experience and feedback, in a similar way to how humans learn to drive. This results in a more intuitive driving style and better decision-making.

The company is also pioneering the use of natural language to help reshape the driverless landscape. Its latest model, Lingo-1, a first-of-its-kind vision-language-action model (VLAM) for self-driving, has the ability to explain why it made a certain decision, such as why it changed speed. This ability to ‘talk’ to the vehicle will hopefully uncover issues and flaws faster than looking at reports and videos playbacks.


Driving conversations

If autonomous vehicles are to become part of our everyday lives, conversations need to be had around why they should be trusted, how they can be safely integrated into society, and the implications they have for broader societal, ethical, and legal issues.

That’s what PAVE (Partners for Automated Vehicle Education) is aiming to do. The non-profit organisation, which has the likes of Audi, Amazon and PwC as members, wants to ensure a driverless future becomes a reality by encouraging an open dialogue and educating the public on the benefits of AVs.

It does this through various informative and engaging initiatives. Its award-winning virtual panel sessions bring together experts to offer insights into the latest developments and address public concerns. It also has a podcast and has a presence at events, as well as a scholarship programme to bring young people into the AV discussion.


AVs on a smaller scale

It’s not just cars and vans that are getting the driverless treatment. It’s robots too.

Autonomous delivery robots, such as those from Starship Technologies, have been navigating pavements across the world for a few years, reshaping the last-mile delivery landscape but also contributing valuable insights and practical experience to the broader AV field.

The deployment of these robots offers a glimpse into how driverless technology can be safely and efficiently integrated into daily life. For example, Starship’s robots use machine learning, AI and sensors to cross streets, navigate obstacles, interpret traffic signals and climb kerbs, showcasing the potential for other driverless technologies in more complex, real-world situations.


A municipal-centric approach

Many driverless tech companies employ a more consumer-focused strategy, selling their service directly to the public. However, May Mobility, which offers on-demand AV transportation to the retirement community, has taken a bigger picture approach, working directly with city governments and public transit agencies.

By aligning their services with the specific needs and regulations of each community, May Mobility is able to provide more effective, tailored transportation solutions, fostering a more sustainable and integrated urban mobility ecosystem and positioning driverless vehicles as a solution to inefficiencies and high costs.


The power of collaboration

A more collaborative approach to research could be key to progressing driverless technology.

Companies, agencies and research labs across the world are working together to share knowledge, resources and expertise, facilitating faster and more effective development. A recent example of this is the evolvAD project, which has Nissan working with Connected Places Catapult, Humanising Autonomy, SBD Automotive and TRL to bring autonomous mobility to residential and rural roads in the UK.

The consortium aims to harness data from CCTV to improve situational awareness and study how vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technologies can be used to enhance the performance of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs).


Steering into a new era

According to McKinsey analysis, autonomous driving could create $300 to $400 billion in revenue, highlighting economic potential and transformative impact this technology is poised to have on the global market.

With the benefits of self-driving vehicles becoming increasingly clear, more organisations and groups are poised to invest in and participate in this developing field over the coming years, driving further innovation and advancement in autonomous transportation.



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