One of the most revolutionary changes in transportation since the days of the horse and buggy is currently underway. In this case, it’s a vehicle without a steering wheel, pedals or even human intervention. Autonomous Vehicles (AVs), also known as self-driving cars or robot cars, are logging thousands and thousands of miles every year as they are tested on America’s roadways.
No longer only in science fiction movies and cartoons, AVs are becoming a reality. A mixture of technology companies, automobile manufacturers and start-ups are all in the race to develop these vehicles. Many of the companies we are already familiar with, such as Apple, Google, Uber, Ford, GM, Tesla and Volkswagen. The list seems to grow every year.
The introduction of fully driverless vehicles into mainstream society is still undetermined, but some say it could be as early as 2020 when Audi plans to debut a fully automated car.
Those who live in the Bay Area in California are already accustomed to seeing Google’s AVs on the roads. The company’s self-driving car program, Waymo, has more than two million miles under its belt since it was launched in 2009. Every day, it seems there are innovations in the development of these vehicles.
Recently, a white Lexus RX450h SUV drove out of an Apple facility in California decked out with a variety of sensors. The company is one of 30 that received a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to test AVs on the state’s highways.
Those who are closely following the development of AVs say there will be many benefits when the vehicles are fully adopted including reducing traffic and parking congestion, fuel savings, fewer accidents and pollution reduction.
According to research conducted by WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, Farrells in 2016 and presented in the report “Making better places: Autonomous vehicles and future opportunities,” “Autonomous vehicles will be transformational. They have the potential to support a better quality of life, economic growth, health, safety and social connections. They offer convenient and affordable mobility to all of us, regardless of where we live, our age or ability to drive. They could also help to improve the way that our existing places and routes work, while offering new potential for more valuable land, and additional homes and jobs.”
The role engineers will play
As corporations further the mission to make advances in driverless vehicles, engineers will play a pivotal role in both the technology and infrastructure needed to support AVs.
Many cars sold today are already capable of some level of automated operation. Vehicles are being utilized in industrial environments such as mining and farming. There are possible applications in construction and warehousing for the use of forklifts, loaders and excavators.
With prototypes being designed, some say that trucks may be the first fully autonomous vehicles to be utilized on public roads. Vehicles are already being adopted for field testing of parcel delivery.
Autonomous cars require a broad range of technologies such as special sensors and computer controls to ensure vehicles understand and interact with the environment. Companies will increasingly depend on the expertise of engineers to design and test this cutting-edge technology while ensuring automated vehicles are properly built and safe to drive.
SAE International, formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers, provided common terminology for automated driving, which ranges from complete driver control to full autonomy. It has been adopted by top automotive experts from around the world, including the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).
- Level 0 – No Automation
- Level 1 – Driver Assistance
- Level 2 – Partial Automation
- Level 3 – Conditional Automation
- Level 4 – High Automation
- Level 5 – Full Automation
Current vehicles being introduced to the market already have some level of technologies such as parallel parking and adaptive cruise control. Companies such as Tesla have incorporated features including accident avoidance, lane guidance and driver fatigue detection.
Another area where engineers will have a huge opportunity is in the future transportation infrastructure. As driverless vehicles become more widespread, it will be become necessary to implement a quality road system. Many say the current infrastructure is a huge roadblock with inconsistent signage and traffic controls, and poor roadways throughout America.
For now, DOT has designated 10 proving ground pilot sites, including San Diego, CA, to encourage testing and information sharing for technologies related to automated vehicles. As a high-tech hub for wireless innovations and research, the region is known for having advanced features in its local transportation network.
The nationwide pilot program will bring together automobile manufacturers, public agencies, private companies and local cities to share information and best practices about AV development.
What engineers can expect
Significant resources are being allocated to develop the cars of the future, which creates a multiple of opportunities for engineers. Dozens of companies are looking for top talent in the field of engineering.
According to an article by Paysa, “What Does The Future of Self-Driving Cars Hold for Tech Talent?” there are a variety of skills needed for a self-driving car engineering jobs including those related to artificial intelligence and computer science as well as robotic sensor systems.
Paysa, an informational website for employees to make educated and informed decisions about their careers, said the average market salary for self-driving car engineers is currently $233K per year, which includes a base salary of $138K, a $26.1K annual bonus, $21K signing bonus and $73.5K annual equity.
Udacity, an online education service, now offers a “nanodegree” which will train engineers to work on self-driving vehicles. It was founded by Sebastian Thrun, a research professor at Stanford University, who was a former Google Fellow and involved in various projects at Google X. Thrun has been instrumental in the development of self-driving cars.
“I’m surrounded by companies that are desperate for talent. Non-traditional players are joining the field and they’re all building substantial teams. But the skill set to build a self-driving car is a multi-disciplinary skill set [and] that broad skill set is just not there,” Thrun was quoted as saying in the Paysa article. He also estimated that companies might need some 20,000 engineers.
There is still much uncertainty in terms of how AVs will affect the economy, transportation and society. Future development will no doubt have a major impact on many industries, including the engineering sector.
Although it is expected to take at least 10 or more years before drivers are taking naps, reading the newspaper or enjoying the view while their car takes them where they want to go, the journey ahead for those who build these vehicles and the ones who utilize them is sure to change the future of driving.
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