Nine days after leaving San Francisco, a blue car packed with tech from a company you’ve probably never heard of rolled into New York City after crossing 15 states and 3,400 miles to make history. The car did 99 percent of the driving on its own, yielding to the carbon-based life form behind the wheel only when it was time to leave the highway and hit city streets.
This amazing feat, by the automotive supplier Delphi, underscores the great LEAPs this technology has taken in recent years, and just how close it is to becoming a part of our lives. Yes, many regulatory and legislative questions must be answered, and it remains to be seen whether consumers are ready to cede control of their cars, but the hardware is, without doubt, up to the task.
What’s remarkable isn’t the fact Delphi completed this trip, but the fact several companies could have done it. Google, Audi, or Mercedes would have had little trouble handling this level of autonomous highway driving. The news here isn’t that this was possible, but that it was so easy.
“The technology is not what is most notable from this trip,” says Jeff Miller, an associate professor at the University of Southern California who works on autonomous driving. “The fact that they drove as far as they did and had a lot of publicity will help the technology more than any programming or hardware on that vehicle.”
The speed with which the technology has reached this point is stunning. Just 11 years ago at the 2004 Darpa Grand Challenge, the most advanced autonomous vehicles of the day attempted to complete a 150-mile course. The best any of them could do was 7.32 miles—and that vehicle got stuck and caught fire. The next year, five vehicles completed a 132-mile course, but took seven hours to do it. Autonomous vehicles have made enormous strides since then, which is especially remarkable when you realize the auto industry typically spends five to seven years developing a new car.
Today, most of the world’s major automakers are working on autonomous technology, with Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and Volvo leading the pack. Google may be more advanced than anyone: The tech giant says it’s self-driving cars are so far along, they can recognize and respond to hand signals from a cop directing traffic.
Most automakers are taking a slow and steady approach to the technology and plan to roll it out over time. Most expect to have cars capable of handling themselves in stop and go traffic and on the highway within three to five years. Cars capable of navigating more complex urban environments will follow in the years beyond that, while fully autonomous vehicles are expected to be commonplace by 2040.
Propelling Us Toward the Day Humans No Longer Hold the Wheel
Companies like Google, which has racked up more than 700,000 miles with its autonomous vehicles, and Audi, which recently completed a road trip from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas, get all the love when it comes to robo-cars. But Delphi is doing just as much work behind the scenes, propelling us toward the day when humans no longer hold the wheel.
One of the auto industry’s biggest suppliers, Delphi has a solid record of innovation, from the first electric starter (1911), to the first in-dash car radio (1936), to the first integrated radio-navigation system (1994). For the past 15 years, it’s been working on active safety features (think active lane keeping and blind spot monitoring). Lately, it has been consolidating all this hardware into a holistic system that lets the car handle itself.
Delphi installed it all in a 2014 Audi SQ5, which Delphi engineers chose simply because they think it’s cool. Seriously. It has windshield-mounted camera spot lane lines, road signs, and traffic lights (in color). Midrange radars that see 80 meters sit on each corner. There’s another radar at the front, and a sixth at the back, plus two long-range units on the front and back. The front corners have built-in LIDaR.
The cross-country trip was meant to generate some publicity, yes, but Delphi also wanted to expose the system to variable real-world conditions and collect terabytes of data to further refine the technology. This car was built within the past year, but it takes advantage of tools that have been in the works for at least 15 years.
“It was time to put it on the road and see how it performed,” says Delphi CTO Jeff Owens. “It was just tremendous.”
The Delphi caravan (the self-driving car, a follow car with more personnel, and a Winnebago full of PR, photo, and video folks) followed a southern route, largely to avoid snow. Apart from the shock of realizing just how long it takes to drive across Texas, the biggest scare of the trip came while crossing a double-decker steel bridge on the drive from Philadelphia to New York. “I saw that bridge coming, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is gonna be a grab the wheel moment,’” says Katherine Winter, a Delphi software engineer. That’s because being surrounded by metal plays hell on radar by making it difficult to discern what’s a threat and what isn’t. But Delphi’s refined how its software understands the radar data and uses the other sensors to augment it. “It actually outperformed what we thought it would do,” Winter says.
Building the car helped Delphi hone the hardware and software automakers will want and need as they begin producing autonomous vehicles, and test it in a variety of situations. That included rain, hot weather, construction zones, and tunnels. “It didn’t miss a lick,” Owens says.
The team celebrated the arrival in New York with high-fives, but Delphi’s not surprised by the accomplishment. It knew before setting out it could handle the miles. It just needed to show us it could.
The six engineers who cycled through the driver’s seat only took control of the car when it encountered a situation they weren’t confident of handling safely, like a construction zone with zig-zagging lane lines, or to make an aggressive lane change to get around a cop car on the shoulder. They obeyed the speed limit and avoided night driving.
There’s no indication that it’s capable of handling the road with far more skill than a human. You’d have to look twice to spot the cameras and LIDaR around the car; the radars are hidden behind plastic body panels. Even the trunk looks ordinary, which is quite a feat—Delphi packed all the necessary computers in the spare tire compartment. That was intentional, Owens says. “We were kind of going for the remarkably unremarkable look.” The reason for this modesty is any tech Delphi pitches to automakers has to be unobtrusive and production-ready.
That is the ultimate goal here. This car won’t be in showrooms. But the stuff that makes it work certainly will be. Delphi makes all the stuff automakers don’t (or can’t) make themselves. The plan is to offer everything an automaker might need to make a fully autonomous car. It’s an off-the-shelf solution anyone can use.
“This drive is one more marker on the exciting road toward automated vehicles,” says Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and affiliate scholar at the Center for Internet and Society. He studies autonomous vehicles and says Delphi’s accomplishment raises public awareness “by previewing what will someday be possible.” That’s a good thing, as long as the conversation includes “what was required, what was hard, and what remains to be done.”
Delphi will take a few weeks to dissect and digest all the data it gathered and everything the engineers noticed, like the car’s skittishness around tractor trailers, and adjust the system as needed. Then it might be time for a trip through Europe, where Delphi does a lot of business and automakers are keen on both active safety and autonomous features.
For now, though, the company is pleased with the progress it’s made, and it confident it will play a significant role in the coming shift to self-driving cars, Owens says. “Delphi can march at the same speed as Silicon Valley.”