self-driving cars, autonomous cars, smart cars

Industry Focus: Self-Driving Cars

Artificial intelligence has developed at a ground-breaking pace, and one area in which this is most evident is the automobile industry. Increasing numbers of developers have been working on creating self-driving, or autonomous, vehicles. These vehicles are surrounded by a lot of hype; they are predicted to become the next big change that technology will bring into our cities and day-to-day lives. However, not only will autonomous cars positively impact regular civilians, they will also create a whole new range of opportunities for people with the necessary interests and skills to contribute to this young industry.

What are autonomous cars?

Most cars on the road today require human input: namely, a driver to direct their movements. Autonomous cars are different in that they are able to gather input independently from their environment and use that information to move themselves. This is why they are also known as driverless or self-driving cars, although so far, autonomous cars require a human driver to be present. However, it is likely that in the future – with more prototypes of autonomous cars being developed – such cars will be used widely.

It is important to recognise that not every self-driving car developed will have a system that supports the same level of autonomy. To illustrate, we can look at the International Society of Automotive Engineers’ six levels of autonomy in vehicles:

Level 0 – This includes no automation, and a human driver has to control acceleration, steering, and braking.

Level 1 – The car can take control in certain driving modes but the driver is essential for steering. Examples include park assist and adaptive cruise control.

Level 2 – There is partial automation in that the car can take control of the steering and the pedals but only under certain conditions. Tesla’s Autopilot when released in 2014 is an example.

Level 3 – The car can use input and take over driving, but not completely since a human driver is required in case the system needs assistance.

Level 4 – Although the car can be driven by a human driver too, there is no need since the car is capable of safely self-driving itself. It may request assistance but such a response isn’t necessary.

Level 5 – The car is fully autonomous, can drive with zero human assistance. The car design may eliminate superfluous elements such as the steering wheel or the front seats.

Developers are focusing mostly on creating Level 4 and 5 autonomous cars so that human drivers are largely unnecessary and the experience is ideally safer and more efficient. The autonomous vehicle industry is in a nascent stage and, as a result, there are many opportunities for those with degrees in technology, and particularly in software engineering.

How do autonomous cars work?

Autonomous cars make use of some very advanced technology to detect variables in their surroundings.

These cars have sensors that can “see” and make decisions based on the driving environment, in much the same way as a human. Autonomous cars all have navigation systems such as the kind already used widely in cars: GPS devices receive information from GPS satellites to determine the exact geographic location of the car.

An autonomous car also needs to be able to recognize the immediate conditions on the roads themselves, such as obstructions or other vehicles. For this, they make use of sophisticated intelligence technology such as cameras, lasers, odometry (estimations in change of position of the vehicle, based on data from sensors), and radar. Together, they feed the car constant information about the driving environment so that the car can drive itself from point A to point B as located on the GPS without accident or other obstructions.

Complex algorithms and software transmit this information to actuators that then translate this into action such as steering, braking, acceleration, and so on. The ability of autonomous cars to recognize other vehicles and possibly communicate with other autonomous vehicles for better travel is also in the process of development.

smart cars, autonomous cars, autonomous driving, self-driving cars

Necessary Skill Sets To Work On Autonomous Cars

While the concept behind self-driving cars is simple enough, developing and improving the actual algorithms and software that coordinate the movements of the car is more complex. In the current job market, the skills required for anyone wishing to work in this field largely include computer science and programming knowledge:

  • Proficiency in programming languages such as Python and C++ are in high demand, so this is a field suited to CS majors who are familiar with advanced levels of coding.
  • Degrees or experience in other areas such as computer vision (improving the ability of computer devices to extract data from images),
  • computer simulation (creating artificial abstract models of actual or theoretical physical systems through a computer), and
  • robotics (the design, construction, and operation of machines that can substitute for humans as well as the computer systems that regulate these machines, provide sensory information, and process information for them).

University Programs

Certain universities have focussed modules on self-driving cars, from Stanford to MIT to Carnegie Mellon. Additionally, online learning platform Udacity now offers a nanodegree in self-driving car engineering. It is likely that in the near future, more such opportunities will arise for those enthusiastic about working with these cars of the future. Currently, the most sought-after professionals are those with advanced degrees.

The majority of new recruits for autonomous car projects are PhD graduates, followed by those with master’s degrees.

Who are involved in developing autonomous cars?

Currently, some of the biggest names in the world market and the automobile industry are investing in autonomous cars. Some of the leading companies are American car manufacturers Ford, multinational technology company Apple, Google’s parent company Alphabet, and Elon Musk’s auto and energy company Tesla. However, these represent only the tip of the iceberg: as of June 2017, according to CB Insights, more than 44 household names – many of which have also joined hands in these initiatives – are involved in research and development for self-driving cars. Examples include the BMW-Intel partnership, Mercedes and Bosch, Nissan and Renault, Toyota, Volkswagen, Microsoft, Jaguar Land Rover, Samsung, Baidu, Hyundai, Huawei, Honda, and such others. On top of that, emerging companies and new companies dedicated to self-driving vehicles are also springing up, ready to make a splash.

With heavyweights and startups alike having started heavily focusing on autonomous cars, they are now a key area of investment and also provide insight on how commuting and traveling can evolve into a much different experience in the near future.

smart transportation, self-driving vehicles

Job Opportunities

Given that the majority of these companies are concentrated in tech-heavy locations such as Palo Alto or Mountain View in the US, this budding industry may be attractive for those living or wanting to work in such areas. Specialized skilled labour is also in high demand in countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom, France, to name a few. Hiring in this industry will be competitive, but there are a large number of firms including both giants and smaller start-ups looking for individuals with the necessary skills:

  • system software,
  • deep learning,
  • autopilot,
  • sensor fusion,
  • mapping and localization,
  • visual perception,
  • motion planning,
  • machine learning

Listings for jobs in these areas are only a quick search away, and more jobs will likely open up in the future as these cars become a public reality and the industry expands.

Are autonomous cars the future?

Reports claim that autonomous cars are inevitable as both governments and private corporations are keen on making them a reality. Different companies have set different deadlines for the release of their autonomous cars, with many committing to the year 2020 (and some even sooner!). It is estimated that more than 10 million automated cars will be used by 2020.

In the next couple of decades and beyond, we are bound to see an explosion in the use of self-driving cars as they become more and more sophisticated and affordable. Even back in 2012, the Institution of Electrical and Electronics Engineers predicted that up to 75% of vehicles will be autonomous by the year 2040. Use of such cars will, of course, depend on the regulations and policies of individual governments. However, governments such as those of the US, UK, and Singapore among others have drawn up policies that encourage the introduction of self-driving cars in the coming years. After periods of testing on public roads and making improvements, they are sure to become an increasingly more common fixture.

Will autonomous cars transform mobility in the near future?

Despite misconceptions about autonomous cars, they are likely to transform our mobility in the near future. Strong efforts are being made to ensure that autonomous cars are safe for passengers as well as for others on the streets, and the expectation is that autonomous driving will in fact be much safer because human errors will not be made. Once technological and regulatory hurdles are overcome, autonomous cars are sure to make a big impact, on people’s day-to-day lives as well industries such as insurance and delivery. It is also likely to create scope for new careers and industrial niches, from car design to data protection and beyond. We can only speculate just how autonomous cars will change the landscape that we know and live in now, but there is no doubt that they will bring some major changes. Those with the specializations mentioned throughout this article can profit majorly through career opportunities in this modern revolution.

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Theresa Kern
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