There is a mechanical engineer and professor of mechanical and electrical engineering— whose distinguished and globe-trotting career has already spanned over 40 years— who can simply and succinctly explain how autonomous driving technologies will actually make it onto a road near you… and sooner than you might think possible.
Bharat Balasubramanian, PhD., laid out his road map to the fairly near future in a colorful and engaging talk (complete with comical video clips) on May 1 at the National Private Truck Council’s annual meeting in the historic Netherlands Plaza hotel in downtown Cincinnati.
The arc of Balasubramanian’s global automotive career is the stuff of a Bollywood epic, or at least of a recruiting video for a top-notch engineering school.
Born and raised in India, he attained a degree in mechanical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai. He then followed his passion for automotive design to one its epicenters— Germany-- where he went on to earn a master’s and then a doctorate in engineering and launched a 38-year career in research and development with Daimler AG.
Balasubramanian retired in 2012 as group vice president of research and advanced engineering for Daimler. Not content to rest on his corporate laurels, Balasubramanian’s next move was to accept an engineering professorship at the University of Alabama as well as the post of executive director of UA’s Center for Advanced Vehicle Technology.
The long and the short of his résumé is that he knows a thing or two about applying technology to make driving safer.
“Increasing safety and the [SAE] levels of autonomous driving are two facets of an identical technology set using advanced sensors, actuators and ECUs with slightly different software,” is how Balasubramanian said he sees technology converging to make operating vehicles far safer than they are today.
Balasubramanian contends that self-driving and safety advances should not be viewed in isolation. He said flat out that “current discussions on autonomous driving revolve too much around an ‘all or nothing’ approach."
Rather than see it that way, he suggested that "the true advantage in deploying advanced driver assistance systems [ADAS] lies in their ability to dramatically reduce the number of accidents and fatalities – and this [occurs] with every incremental piece of safety technology [introduced].”
He pointed out as well that “typically, implementing truck safety technology lags cars by 10 to 20 years. But with [the rollout] of autonomous driving technologies, these times will probably be cut dramatically through legislative and societal pressures.
“Depending on road and traffic complexities, [SAE] Level 4 High Automation mode [coupled] with ‘high automation’ [installed] on parts of Interstate highways ‘from entry to exit’ could be achieved by 2022,” he predicted.
On the other hand, Balasubramanian said that “in other [less advanced] scenarios, the vehicle may only operate in Level 2 Partial Autonomous mode, such as on city streets.”
Leap ahead to 2022 – only five years hence – and picture those highly autonomus trucks plying "entry to exit" stretches of Interstate (OK, well let's just say they'll be doing so during clear weather). Now that you have that view in mind, is it really so hard to leap to picturing other trucks in other duty cycles running with various levels of task-oriented automation? Especially if it makes the roads safer for all? I, for one, think not.
FYI: Here are the SAE J3016 Levels of Automation for on-road motor vehicles:
- Level 0 – No Automation: The full-time performance by the human driver of all aspects of the dynamic driving task, even when enhanced by warning or intervention systems
- Level 1 – Driver Assistance: The driving mode-specific execution by a driver assistance system of either steering or acceleration/deceleration using information about the driving environment and with the expectation that the human driver performs all remaining aspects of the dynamic driving task
- Level 2 – Partial Automation: The driving mode-specific execution by one or more driver assistance systems of both steering and acceleration/deceleration using information about the driving environment and with the expectation that the human driver performs all remaining aspects of the dynamic driving task
- Level 3 – Conditional Automation: The driving mode-specific performance by an Automated Driving System of all aspects of the dynamic driving task with the expectation that the human driver will respond appropriately to a request to intervene
- Level 4 – High Automation: The driving mode-specific performance by an Automated Driving System of all aspects of the dynamic driving task, even if a human driver does not respond appropriately to a request to intervene
- Level 5 – Full Automation: The full-time performance by an Automated Driving System of all aspects of the dynamic driving task under all roadway and environmental conditions that can be managed by a human driver
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