At Collision Toronto 2019, Tim Stevens of CNET sat down with Zaki Fasihuddin, CEO of Volvo Cars Technology USA; Don Burnette, CEO of Kodiak Robotics; and Scott Hempy, CRO of Filld to discuss when and where autonomous vehicles will appear on roads.

From the left: Don Burnette, CEO of Kodiak Robotics; Zaki Fasihuddin, CEO of Volvo Cars Technology USA; Scott Hempy, CRO of Filld; Tim Stevens of CNET

Autonomizing vehicular transportation is beneficial to all aspects of transportation including shuttles, ride sharing, and delivery services. But in tandem with their self-driving capabilities, the key priority is still safety. Panelists discussed how AI, while excellent at image recognition, has trouble identifying closely-related patterns and movements. For example, it’s challenging for an AI to differentiate between a road worker waving cars to stop and someone waving to hail a taxi. This is a major hindrance to realizing fully-autonomous, driverless cars.

For this reason and others, autonomous cars will initially be deployed on highways and freeways, where human intervention is minimal. Narrow AI is adept at predicting the trajectory and behaviors of cars in environments without people as a variable.

Coincidentally, long haul trucks spend most of their time in these road conditions, which is a great application for the first batch of autonomous vehicles. This could be the solution to an increasingly pressing problem in the 700 billion freight industry: the shortage of long haul truck drivers.

So what about maintenance? Once vehicles reach level five autonomousness — that is, completely self-driving — will they be able to keep track of maintenance schedules and perform self-refueling? This sparks new challenges for standardization and vehicle design.

“There’s obviously the technology development piece of this, but then there’s also the infrastructure that needs to support it,” explained Hempy. “With our perspective at Filld, it’s been how do we start to move towards that, whether it be the fueling for us, or the oil changes the maintenance of these vehicles, there’s a lot of things that are going to need to start to move that direction to reach full autonomy. You don’t want to get in a car, and then have it take you to the gas station. So there are pieces of that puzzle that we’re trying to work on to start to make that easier and more seamless with the connected car, because a lot of that technology exists.”

Vehicles are also only part of the equation; they need to be supported by strong underlying infrastructure. This calls the entire automotive industry to move forward, not just car manufacturers.

Once successfully implemented, automated cars could potentially provide a cheaper alternative mode of transportation to flying. As with cars today, when autonomous vehicles are eventually deployed applied en masse, the other conversation is environmental sustainability.

“We made a pretty big commitment to electrification as well,” said Fasihuddin. “So we view this as a sustainable play as well. I think electrification is what’s going to happen, regardless on his own timeframe, but it just happens to be occurring at the same time.”

Elaborating on the topic, Hempy added that charging electric vehicles takes time, and downtime is bad for any business.

“And maybe there are mobile solutions, there’s a variety of ways we can look at that to try to make that more efficient. But it’s really the charge downtime that’s going to hinder the autonomy, kind of the full autonomy.”

Pulling back into automobiles of the present, AI and assisted driving is already being prominently applied in premium vehicles. Features like Cadillac Super Cruise and Tesla Autopilot constantly monitor their surrounding environment and intervene to correct simple human errors. Because it integrates so well into the driver’s control, a worry is that drivers are becoming too reliant on them. The foremost step, then, is to inform these drivers that they’re performing unsafe driving practices.

“We have a service called pilot assist in our car. It’s a feature that basically does lane keeping and lane assists. And I can’t remember what it was like to drive without it,” confessed Fasihuddin. “I think I’m so used to using this technology, because it just simplifies your life and actually decreases your stress when you’re driving. But there’s also the danger, this point, I think of people becoming a little bit over-reliant on the system, because you’re still going to be paying attention right now.”

While it’s still a ways away, everyone on the panel agreed that fully-autonomous cars will arrive in the next 20 or so years. In the meantime, the industry is focused on perfecting level four autonomy, where AI assisted tools work in conjunction with human drivers to make the roads safer and easier to navigate.

“We’re probably less concerned about getting the technology out there. We’re more concerned about getting it right. I would agree, it will take a couple of decades, but in our lifetime, I think we’ll see it. I think in the meantime, if we perfect [level 4] and get that right, we’re going to see level five come a lot sooner.

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