Autonomous Vehicles Are Approaching Their Destination

Carl Weinschenk
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Just a few years ago, the idea of autonomous vehicles seemed like science fiction. Now that idea has methodically evolved to the point where it is accepted as a near-term technology.

Uber now is offering an autonomous car service to customers in Pittsburgh. A blog posted today by Anthony Levandowski and Travis Kalanick, the company’s co-founders, said that Uber’s “most loyal” customers can now request to be driven by a driverless car. The cars will, however, arrive with a human safety driver. The post doesn’t offer many details, but says that the hope is that driverless cars will improve safety, cut congestion and provide other benefits.

This week, CEO Mark Fields provided TechRepublic with an update of Ford's autonomous vehicle program. There are five levels of vehicle autonomy. Level four is one in which a passenger doesn’t have to be prepared to take over. Fields told TechRepublic that Ford aims to provide a Level four vehicle – which will have no steering wheel, gas or brake pedal – in 2021. It will initially be available in limited areas and aimed at the ride-hailing or ride-sharing sector. In other words, it won’t be available for private purchase right away.


Fields summed up the multiple challenges the initiative faces:

I think there are a number of hurdles. Put it into four buckets: There's the technology hurdle, there's the regulatory hurdle, there's the economic hurdle (in terms of bringing the cost down), and just the adoption hurdle of people getting used to this.

Boston is another city in which autonomous vehicles will be center stage. Boston.com reported today that the city has been selected by the World Economic Forum to study the topic. The announcement, made by Mayor Marty Walsh and the Boston Transportation Department, said that the year-long initiative will be conducted in conjunction with Go Boston 2030. The goal of the program is to improve access to transportation, make it more sustainable, improve safety and build the economy.

It’s not surprising that Google wants a horse – or car – in the race. Being able to compete in Michigan seems a requisite for doing so. The bad news for Google is that there are a couple of provisions in legislation that passed the Michigan State Senate last week that would make that difficult, according to The Detroit Free Press. One provision excludes companies that are not automobile makers from participating in research on autonomous vehicles within the state. The other requires that vehicles that operate in such a manner be “supplied or controlled by a motor vehicle manufacturer,” the story says.

The telecommunications and IT sectors have had a lot to do with the technology that is making autonomous vehicles a reality. And that reality is just about here.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.

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