T. E. “Ed” Schlesinger, dean of engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, believes that an era of autonomous vehicles will arrive within the next 15-20 years. Schlesinger, who founded General Motors-Carnegie Mellon Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab before joining Johns Hopkins, is an expert in engineering systems for driverless cars.
COMPASS: We’ve seen a raft of announcements that auto manufacturers are aligning themselves with Google, Apple or Microsoft to create operating systems for cars that will allow them more autonomy. Why now?
ED SCHLESINGER: The added value in automobiles is becoming the information technology infrastructure, both within the automobile and for the automobile to communicate with other vehicles. It’s as much about economics as anything else. Style and comfort will always matter to people. But more and more, the technologies that guarantee safety and connectivity will become increasingly important.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently announced that it wants all cars to broadcast their location, speed and other data. What is your analysis of this announcement?
ES: That’s the beginning of building out that infrastructure. One can imagine the cars communicating with one another and with other devices and systems in the world.
So how is autonomous driving going to actually unfold?
ES: The regulatory environment will have to allow these technologies to be deployed. There will need to be some sort of standardization in terms of interoperability. You can’t have a situation where different cars and devices made by different manufacturers are not able to talk to each other in a reliable manner. It’s not going to be that different from what we see in air traffic control systems. We expect both Airbuses and Boeings to be connected in a way that everything functions seamlessly.
Won’t manufacturers from North America, Europe, Japan, South Korea and China compete to create their own systems? How can a global set of standards emerge?
ES: I think there may be initially a kind of jockeying for position as to who will set the standard. But ultimately, it’s to the benefit of everyone that there is a standard. We’ve seen this in other technologies. Televisions in Europe were one system and televisions in the United States were another. If you bought a DVD in one country, you couldn’t necessarily play it on a device from another country. It seems unattractive to have cars that only operate in the United States and others that only operate in Europe. I think manufacturers around the world will have an incentive to converge on a standard.
“THE ADDED VALUE IN AUTOMOBILES IS BECOMING THE INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY INFRASTRUCTURE, BOTH WITHIN THE AUTOMOBILE AND FOR THE AUTOMOBILE TO COMMUNICATE WITH OTHER VEHICLES.”
DEAN OF ENGINEERING, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
So you believe that all the issues can be sorted out to allow for completely autonomous vehicles?
ES: Yes, my personal feeling is that we will have greater autonomy and then complete autonomy. Autonomous vehicles will start entering in niche applications. In seaports, the 18-wheeler trucks will become autonomous. Rental car buses in airports will become autonomous. There will be dedicated lanes from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and autonomous trucks will make 80% of the journey. When it gets close to San Francisco, a human driver will get into the cab to take it into more complex routing.
And all this will be safer than what we have today?
ES: I have complete confidence that autonomous vehicles are safer, much like air travel. Everyone knows that air travel is far safer, statistically, than car travel. The system uses very well-engineered vehicles, and the pilots are highly trained, monitored and reviewed. You have a tremendously safe, reliable system. It will be the same with autonomous vehicles. You won’t have any individuals getting tired or drunk or distracted. The vehicles will be able to know what traffic patterns are, what the ideal routes are, and overall congestion will be relieved. Nobody will be making errors. There will be far fewer accidents. And there will be no road rage.
After this system is implemented, society will look back and ask, “Can you imagine that any 16-year-old was allowed to get behind the wheel of a 2,000-pound car and start driving it?” It will seem absurd that we allowed that to happen. ◆
Watch Carnegie Mellon’s driverless car in action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kW5AnrtVor8