Who – or What – is Driving that Car?

The age of robo-cars is upon us and it’s not only giant car manufacturers investing in the technology. Entering the self-driving car arena are automotive industry giants like Ford, Toyota, and Volkswagen, as well as, Nissan, Tesla, and Audi. Other players you might not expect to see like Samsung, Apple, Intel and Microsoft; even DiDi, Uber, and Lyft are looking to capitalize on this new technology. There are currently 44 different companies guarding their design secrets while feverishly working to beat the others to the road. When did the autonomous car grow its legs?

History of Autonomous Vehicles

Engineers have been dreaming of autonomous cars since Leonardo Da Vinci, and actually working on building them since the 1920s. The 1939 World’s Fair gave the concept public exposure when GM’s Futurama exhibit envisioned green parkways for cars to drive themselves. But until the 21st century, there were few major successes.

1995 saw the “No Hands Across America” tour sponsored by Delco Electronics, AssistWare Technology, and Carnegie Mellon University. “Driving” a Navlab 5 (1990 Pontiac Trans Sport) from Pittsburgh to San Diego, two researchers from CMU Robotics Institute used the RALPH (Rapidly Adapting Lateral Position Handler) computer program. RALPH employed video for location and steering, while the researchers handled the throttle and brake. At the time, it was the “longest, continuous, autonomous interaction for a robot in a real world environment.”

The US government has been working on autonomous technology for military drones and vehicles for a long time. In the early 2000s, Oshkosh built their TerraMax – unmanned ground vehicles that could navigate miles of off-road terrain while avoiding obstacles. They used a hierarchical control system which controlled throttle, steering, and brake, as well as groups of vehicles’ movements could be automatically coordinated.

Looking for the next researcher to build an autonomous vehicle that can complete a 150-mile course in the Mojave Desert, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been holding its Grand Challenge since 2004, rewarding the winner a $1 million prize. No vehicle completed nor won the first challenge, but the following year, five vehicles completed the course. Then in 2007, the challenge moved to an urban environment and Carnegie Mellon’s Chevy Tahoe emerged victorious.

In Australia in 2008, Rio Tinto Alcan began using an autonomous mining haulage system. The benefits to health, safety, and productivity were so great that in 2011, Rio Tinto expanded its fleet. Google began quietly developing self-driving cars in 2009. 2010 saw their driverless Audi TTS climb Pike’s Peak at near racing speeds. Also in 2010, Germany’s Leonie was the first car licensed for autonomous driving on highways and streets in Germany. And Parma University’s VISLAB took an almost 10,000 mile trip from Parma to Shanghai. Their autonomous van drove through nine countries in 100 days with only one human error accident, a traffic stop in Russia, as well as a few hitchhikers along the way. 

France’s Navia shuttle became the first self-driving vehicle available for commercial sale in 2014. Switzerland, the UK, and Singapore have employed the shuttle with positive success. In 2016 Singapore launched nuTonomy’s self-driving taxi service. Now, teaming with Lyft, nuTonomy is hoping to unleash their service on Boston and California this year.

Top automotive manufacturers have already begun adding automatic options to their cars. The Mercedes S-class can offer its customers autonomous parking, steering, acceleration, braking, accident avoidance, and even driver fatigue detection on highways up to 124 mile per hour and in city traffic. Infiniti’s Q50 has similar features available for commercial sale. Most manufactures have a self parking feature and lane change alert among other features that are quickly becoming the standard.

Fully Autonomous Cars

With semi-automatic cars hitting the streets now, there is an even bigger push by manufacturers to successfully release a fully autonomous commercial vehicle. In 2015, Baidu and BMW tested a joint autonomous technology on Chinese highways. And more recently in the US, Tesla, Honda, Ford, Apple, Baidu, and Waymo have recently been granted permits to test their autonomous vehicles in California. And earlier this month, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced their renewed focus on “the mother of all AI projects”, the autonomous driving system. 

With so many vying for the lead in the industry, technology is being kept close to the cuff. All of this highly guarded technology has spawned a few lawsuits between some manufacturers over infringement, engineer poaching, and blueprint stealing. Everyone wants to get to the road first. 

Everyone except Baidu, a Chinese company. Baidu has chosen the opposite route and will gradually share its driverless control technology. By releasing their hardware and software code to other manufacturers, Baidu hopes to level the playing field for smaller manufacturers, especially Chinese ones. Baidu, known as China’s Google, plans to focus on employing cloud services as much as possible. They’ve also begun collaborating with other parts of the world. Germany’s Bosch is partnered to develop better mapping capabilities. Samsung owned, but US based, Harman is on board to build your car a virtual assistant.

Baidu feels this open, collaborative approach is a more innovative way to efficiently and quickly evolve the entire industry. With the goal of becoming the go-to operating system for driverless cars, Baidu hopes to have the technology ready by 2020. Which means not too far in the future you could be driving next to an autonomous car on the highway or open city road.

If any impurities get inside, there could be an adverse influence on the car’s function. The last thing you want is a car with no driver running you off the road because the computer inside couldn’t manage its internal temperature properly or some dust from the road infiltrated its system. 

To maintain the precise behavior of a robo-car, manufacturers turn to companies like UAF. UAF builds high quality air filters that will help maintain the system’s internal temperature and cleanliness. Without supremely efficient, well-built air filters, it doesn’t matter how advanced the technology is or how refined the equipment is. UAF air filters will keep your equipment within its optimal temperature range and give you high dust arrestance, because heat and particulates can corrupt and destroy even the most sophisticated system.