Self-driving cars have been all the rage in both the trade press and popular press in recent years. I prefer the term “autonomous vehicles” which more broadly captures the possibilities, encompassing not only small passenger vehicles, but mass transit and industrial vehicles as well. Depending on who’s talking, we’ll all be riding in fully autonomous vehicles in 5 to 25 years. The 5-year estimates come from startups eager to raise venture capital while the 25-year estimates come from Tier 1 automotive suppliers who tend to be more cautious for various reasons. Regardless of the time frame, much capital and effort is being invested toward making autonomous vehicles a reality.
I must admit that I didn’t fully understand the enthusiasm for self-driving cars until last year. First, I’ve always enjoyed driving, unless I’m in stop-and-go traffic, and couldn’t imagine relinquishing the task. Second, I’ve deliberately arranged my life to spend minimal time in my car. However, traffic has gotten much heavier in my metropolitan area (Boston) and I know that many people in cities around the world face increasing commutes and wasted time in gridlock.
My awakening occurred while walking through Shinigawa Station in Tokyo, one of the busiest train stations in the world. Dense streams of people crisscrossed the station on their individual paths, managing to avoid collisions without any traffic controls. Evidently, humans have an innate collision avoidance ability that makes traffic controls for pedestrian crowds unnecessary. That was the moment of my epiphany about self-driving cars. If autonomous vehicles can achieve the same excellence in collision avoidance as humans, traffic controls for vehicular traffic might be greatly reduced or eliminated, providing a huge gain in transportation efficiency and relief from gridlock. This would be very positive for the world in many respects.
Improved and new sensors, many based on MEMS technology, will be key to achieving this vision. MEMS-based inertial sensors, accelerometers and gyros, are already key safety components in conventional vehicles and key to improved self-navigation in autonomous vehicles. Many of our customers rely on Coventor software to design MEMS gyros and accelerometers for automotive applications. Judging from their requests to increase the accuracy and capacity of our modeling tools, the performance specifications for these sensors are becoming more demanding: they must deliver sensors with reduced temperature sensitivity, higher precision, and higher signal-to-noise ratio, etc. Other MEMS-based devices such as micromirrors and micro ultrasound transducers (MUTs) are promising options for implementing “vision” and ranging systems in autonomous vehicles. We’re seeing more use of our MEMS design software for these types of devices. It’s clear that much of this demand and activity is motivated by the goal of self-driving cars.
When will self-driving cars become a reality? Aside from being a provocative question that got you to read this far, I don’t have a definitive answer. It will undoubtedly occur in phases ranging from the driver augmentation systems available in today’s cars to 20 years or more for the full autonomy and ubiquity that will allow reduction of traffic controls. What is clear is that the ultimate goals for autonomous vehicles are highly worthwhile and that achieving these goals will require more and better sensors. We look forward to helping our customers design and integrate these sensors into the next generation of autonomous vehicles.