Commercial Market May Outpace Military on Driverless Vehicles
By Allyson Versprille
Sensors first developed by military contractors are fueling the development of commercial driverless vehicles, which may be available as early as 2018, a recently released report by Frost & Sullivan said.
"The introduction of unmanned vehicles can be expected to create a new dimension in the transportation industry," said Jabez Mendelson, a research analyst for Technical Insights at Frost & Sullivan. Unmanned land vehicles will be marketed as a separate product segment similar to the hatchback, sedan, SUV and luxury cars, he predicted.
In the report titled, "Innovations in Unmanned Vehicles — Land, Air and Sea," Mendelson and co-author, Kasthuri Jagadeesan, an industry manager for Technical Insights, explained that recent advances in sensor technology are hastening the introduction of autonomous vehicles to public roads.
"The convergence between connected devices and sensors is one such area that has led to the evolution of next-generation applications such as contextual awareness, location-based systems and gesture recognition systems," said Mendelson in an email.
A key innovation highlighted in the report is the multi-mode radar system developed by General Atomics Aeronautical System Inc. Also known as the Lynx system, it has dual capability creating 2D and 3D images of objects and landscapes as well as distinguishing a moving target from stationary clutter. The current system is specifically designed for aerial needs but emphasizes the importance of sensor fusion — using multiple sensors to deduce a parameter with increased accuracy — in unmanned vehicle production.
One analyst is skeptical about the 2018 time frame. Driverless vehicle availability in the commercial market will depend on what environment they are going to operate in, said Larry Dickerson, a senior defense analyst at Forecast International, noting that the U.S. military is already experimenting with unmanned perimeter defense vehicles for sensitive sites such as nuclear research facilities and intercontinental ballistic missile silos.
Autonomous vehicles tend to be used out in the middle of nowhere in controlled areas, he said. "A practical [driverless car] where I could get in…and just recline while it takes me there all on its own — that's a ways away," said Dickerson.
The technology isn't as smart as the general public is perceiving it to be, he said. It will get there, but there are some bugs that still need to be worked out.
"You have a machine interacting with illogical people, and that's always going to be a problem," Dickerson said.
Other obstacles facing the development of driverless cars are regulations, privacy issues, liability, acceptance by the general public and the costs associated with adoption and manufacturing, according to Mendelson.
Commercialization will also depend on continued funding from the government and private companies, both Dickerson and Mendelson said.
"Technology has advanced in the last 10 to 15 years because they've had the money," said Dickerson. These types of funds are necessary not only for development, but for research, especially at universities which have been pillars of the technology industry, he said.
There are several big players in the commercial production of robotic vehicles including original equipment manufacturers such as BMW, Google — which uses Lexus — Audi, Daimler, Volvo, Nissan-Renault and Toyota.
Whether these companies will be able to overcome the difficulties of positioning these products for market is yet to be seen, Mendelson said.
The high cost and investment involved in the development of automatic systems as well as the cost of production and vehicle ownership are expected to be a challenge for the manufacturers, he added.
Photo: BMW unmanned vehicle (BMW)