VIDEO: News emerged this month that Volvo’s autonomous ‘self-driving’ cars had been integrating almost seamlessly with ‘manual’ traffic in the Swedish city of Gothenburg, with 100 of the vehicles passing tests to be legally driven (or not, as the case may be) on the roads. Their “Drive Me” project is not alone; Google’s driverless cars have almost become synonymous with autonomous vehicles, and its latest fleet has been mirroring Volvo with almost 700,000 miles covered by the search engine’s cars. Both tests show that autonomous vehicles are capable of varying speed, maintaining consistent handling, cornering, merging and changing lanes, and reacting to obstacles like traffic lights, cyclists, pedestrians and level crossings. 

The technology isn’t necessary the ground-breaking thing here – it’s the precision and accuracy at which it’s able to perform alongside real world, unpredictable scenarios. These developments go to show that autonomous cars are no longer a futuristic dream or an interesting ‘science fair’ proof of concept piece of technology; while the concept has been ever present in researchers minds for decades since the dawn of public automotive technology, it’s only in the last 10 years that the technology has well and truly exploded.

So what’s so important and exciting about current developments, where does this place the future of driverless cars and how will production and technological challenges be overcome?

The evolution of autonomous technology to date

The technology required to get these cars flawlessly dealing with the every-day trials of driving is moving at an incredibly fast rate, although much of the technology is an evolution. Take ABS systems, for example – this is a form of autonomous driving. Instead of having to manually pump the brake pedal to avoid the skid, sensors in the break system detect the braking pattern and react accordingly.

It’s something we take for granted and seems so simple in modern day engineering but, nonetheless, it’s an example of how the technology and thinking behind automation is deeply ingrained. Autonomous vehicles will take a bit more of a leap; Google’s robotic cars, for example, will utilise a laser radar system to generate live 3D models and maps of the surroundings combined with existing world maps to create a virtual environment. Cameras work with all this to detect obstacles such as other vehicles, crossings, roadworks and cyclists, creating a comprehensive virtual environment for the sophisticated on-board computer to navigate within.

How firms need to overcome production challenges

This sort of technological leap does even more to blur the lines and blend precision automotive engineering with cutting edge electrical engineering developments. A recent report into new technologies, published by the McKinsey Institute, places a $33tr return on new technologies, including the advanced robotics found in autonomous vehicles, for manufacturing industries globally – and more than half of this ($19tr) will come from outside of the US.

To some degree, existing production methods have evolved along with the technology – in essence this means that the tech is there, the knowledge of both electrical and mechanical manufacturing providers is there, it’s just a case of taking a complicated concept and making its production scalable. This will require electrical engineering firms to work even more closely with mechanical and precision engineers, like automotive specialists Fastec Engineering – and companies with both of these weapons in their manufacturing arsenal will be at a distinct advantage.

So how long until we’re all commuting to work on the roads with our feet up and a CPU doing all the work, vehicles shooting round the motorway like data packets in a network? Quite a while. But the technology is here and, even though a lot more testing is needed for a complete driverless switchover, the challenges current vehicles have overcome to date are nothing short of exciting.

What we’ll likely see is a gradual integration of features over time, drip feeding the marking and dipping the technological toe into the waters of consumerism, and with this we’ll see a similarly gradual evolution in engineering and production procedures – from major mechanical parts down to lasers and processing systems.