Autonomous mobility technology has always generated a lot of debate in the mobility sector due to its revolutionary effects and benefit that will change the world as we see now. But, due to various infrastructure and technology development issues, it has remained a dream technology till now. So, what has happened in the last year in the world of autonomy to give this confidence boost? Well, a few things.
According to the latest IDTechEx report, autonomous vehicles are predicted to perform more safely than the average American driver within three years. Breaking the previous year down into the most significant advancements: COVID-19 has kick-started the next phase of autonomous testing, technology maturity continues to more than double year on year, sensor prices are coming down and performance is increasing, and there are genuine autonomous services available, just in very limited conditions.
The impact of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly had a devastating impact on the world over the past year or so. However, opportunity can often be found in the face of adversity, and this was the case for autonomy.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the companies that had been testing autonomous services with safety/backup drivers behind the wheel (Waymo, Cruise, Baidu, Pony, etc.) were forced to cease testing. There was concern about the social contact between the riders and the safety drivers being a factor in spreading the pandemic. Here is where the opportunity was presented; it seemed that the safest way to continue testing was without the safety driver behind the wheel.
In July 2020, AutoX became the first MaaS company to gain a driverless testing license, a world-first which allowed them to operate driverless vehicles in California. The new license type allowed them to operate a fully autonomous service in San Jose, limited to roads with a posted speed limit of 45mph or less. Following that, another six companies have been granted similar licenses in California and others have gained similar licenses for parts of China.
IDTechEx’s analysis shows exponential growth in the miles per disengagement, with the figure more than doubling each year. By extrapolating this growth IDTechEx predicts that within 3 years autonomous vehicles will be performing more safely than the average American driver.
IDTechEx even went one step further and found that within 25 years autonomous vehicles will be able to travel the same annual distance as the entire US fleet without a single disengagement.
There are still obstacles to overcome, such as testing in more urbanized areas and the establishment of cost-effective sensor suites. Waymo and Cruise have recently gained permission to test in the urban centers of San Francisco which will help with the former.
Sensor advancements and price reductions
Apple driving down prices of LiDAR
While Apple is perpetually generating hype, and not much more, when it comes to autonomy, they have inadvertently had an enormous impact when it comes to sensors.
Velodyne has said their Velarray H800 LiDAR unit will have a price tag of less than $500, a massive improvement compared to the ~$10,000 LiDAR price tags of a couple of years ago, and ~$75,000 before that.
IDTechEx is now seeing sensor suites with 7 lidar units, hence being able to source LiDARs at a reasonable price is vital for the mass production of MaaS ready vehicles. For more on LiDAR see the in-depth LiDAR report from IDTechEx, complete with forecasts.
Imaging radars coming to market
Another sensor advancement to get excited about is the emergence of imaging radars. Incumbent radars have 12 virtual channels, similar to pixels in a camera, which allows them to detect an object and return its distance and speed.
This is where imaging radars come in. Imaging radars, like Continental’s ARS540, have ~200 virtual channels, which allows them to make the distinctions described above. Furthermore, Arbe is bringing a radar to the market with 2000 virtual channels. While Arbe is currently in the start-up phase, they have already agreed to supply 400,000 units to AutoX, a leader in autonomy.
Mobileye, a subsidiary of Intel has also said they plan to bring a 2000 virtual channel radar to market, although theirs won’t be ready for a few more years.