Chris Urmson, head of Google's driverless car programs, delivered the keynote address at the AV Symposium.

By Jeff Sanford

Toronto, Ontario -- August 5, 2015 -- The Automated Vehicles Symposium is an annual event designed to advance the deployment of self-driving vehicles. This year's event, held in Ann Arbor, Michigan, drew over 900 people from various industries involved with driverless cars. The keynote address was delivered by Chris Urmson, head of Google's driverless car programs. 

Canadian AV expert Susan Spencer, Senior Associate at the Canadian Automated Vehicles Center of Excellent (CAVCOE), was at the Michigan symposium. She brought back some interesting ideas and comments. Spencer suggests the Michigan summer conference has become a key event in the rapidly evolving world of automated vehicles.

“It’s a conference I’ve been to a couple of times. In my experience it’s one of the better ones out there. It’s five or six years old. But the number of attendees is growing every year,” says Spencer. “There was a sixty percent increase in attendance last year. There were close to 900 people this year. Each year it’s grown by leaps and bounds. This is a reflection of the interest in this area.”

Few have been following the automated vehicle (AV) story longer than Spencer. Previously she worked for Transport Canada as the Director of Intelligent Transport Systems. She has been following this subject for fifteen years now. Spencer says she is amazed at how rapidly the sector has evolved in recent years.

“For years there was not that much on the horizon. But then by 2008 there was more and more talk. Now the developmental work has been done and we’re testing this stuff. In the last two to three years I’ve become convinced this stuff is going to happen,” she says. “We really need to think the potential impacts are going to be. That’s my take on this. We need to have a reasonable discussion around preparedness. We need to get ready for this stuff.”

She has a point. As has been widely reported, the Google self-driving car has driven over seven million miles now. Devices that connect cars on the road to cloud computing apps are becoming common. And so many today are predicting a whole lot of change is coming to the auto sector in the near future.

“It will be an evolution,” says Spencer. First, connected cars that talk to each other on the road will become a part of our world. Then, more progressively automated cars will become a regular part of the transportation sector.

“The tech is here. The Google car is driving 10,000 miles a week. Delphi just drove a self-driving car from one coast to another. These cars work. The big message was that the tech is here, it’s maturing. The question now is fine-tuning the technology and making sure these cars can handle real-life situations” says Spencer.

Getting these AVs onto the road will be a matter of making sure they are extremely safe. During the conference news broke about the hack of a connected Chrysler vehicle. This was a much-discussed event at the symposium.

“Cyber security was on the mind of everyone there. That was big. Personal privacy of all this data is going to be a big issue,” said Spencer. She went on to say that the new head of the US-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Mark Rosekind, addressed the symposium and said his agency was considering introducing new regulations “to make it a criminal act to hack a car.”

“It was a reassuring message that he gave. He’s an impressive speaker. He comes from NASA, another tech-based agency. So he’s clearly an enthusiast and champion for AV. He gets it. He’s trying to push the process and get the US ready for the rollout,” says Spencer.

She went on to point out that cars are going to be a lot more complex in the years to come. Automated cars will have to have what might be called “massive situational awareness” that occurs without interruption or breakdown.

“Many were talking about the need to design redundancy into these new systems. And so you need redundancy among sensors on cars. OEMs are talking about having six LIDARs on a car along with a suite of cameras to deliver that situational awareness about the car. And you’ll need to have seamless integration among all these sensors.”

What is the timeline on this new tech?

“A lot of that is happening today,” says Spencer. “Most cars will be rolling off line with ability to connect to other cars by 2017 and 2019. When it comes to automated vehicles, I think it’s still the mid-2020s before that happens. It’s not something that’s going to happen at once. We won’t see non-AV cars suddenly become AV vehicles. It’ll be an evolution. We’ll see increasing levels of automation.”

Watch for more on the Automated Vehicle Symposium, including the changing insurance market, the ethics of autonomous vehicles and public acceptance.


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