A look at autonomous cars and all the software and solutions they will require.
If fully automated cars are the future, Silicon Valley will have to do away with at least one infamous adage: Move fast and break stuff. When coding for cars, it isn’t as easy to test and pull back features that don’t work as expected in the wild. All of a car’s features have to operate bug free.
Forecasts abound on when fully automated cars will hit public roads, but Andreessen Horowitz partner Benedict Evans says very few expect full autonomy within the next five years, and most tend closer to ten. Boston Consulting Group estimates annual global sales of 12 million fully (not partially) autonomous vehicles by 2035, but already heavyweights like Ford and GM are offering sneak peeks at their plans. Elon Musk claimed Tesla will have a demo vehicle able to drive from California to New York with “no controls touched at any point during the entire journey” by the end of 2017.
In a sense, automated cars are the ultimate “mobile device,” requiring both new interfaces and intuition behind controlling the vehicle. As this industry grows, so too does the need for engineers that understand how to build software for the entire platform: from the applications in the dashboard, to the overall intelligence and image processing algorithms that help the car navigate the unpredictable aspects of driving, to sensors for the engine and parts.
”They’re trying to create a car that not only replicates human behavior, but can be smart and above human behavior,” says Autonet founder and veteran automotive software executive Sterling Pratz. These skills will (at least) include developing software for high-powered sensors, understanding computer vision algorithms, deep learning and neural networks, kinematics, automotive hardware, and parts. None of those are new — but it’s the combinations that are paving the way for new types of engineers.
Building up the stack
Every year since the Model T, cars have taken work from the driver, such as key-start ignition, automatic transmissions, cruise control, automatic doors, power steering, anti-lock brakes, onboard navigation, distance sensors for parking, automatic parallel parking, and home charging stations for electrical vehicles.
Those have been the incremental changes. That still puts cars at Autonomy Level 2 (out of 5), according to the Society of Automotive Engineers. Level 3 means the system monitors the environment but the driver steers; at Level 4 the car monitors and drives but the driver can take over when needed; and Level 5 means the car always retains control. Leaping to where people can trust taking their hands off the wheel offers engineers a huge opportunity: this field requires an combinational understanding of deep learning techniques, data science, software engineering, and sensor processing. Each one of these disciplines will need to be comfortable merging the intersection of “resting data,” like buildings and intersections, and streaming data such as a child running into the road.
That’s not to say every component of an automated car offers significant opportunity for development. Evans believes sensors — Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) especially — will trend the way of hardware and become a commodity. And dashboard applications will mostly be dominated by Uber, Lyft, Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, Pandora, Waymo, and onboard navigation apps. Most remaining apps will make more sense used from a phone anyway.
Those incumbents will still offer jobs but in terms of industry growth, “the place to look is not within the cars directly but still further up the stack,” Evans notes, “in the autonomous software that enables a car to move down a road without hitting anything, in the city-wide optimization and routing.” In other words, focus on the software that builds and operates the system, not the dashboard console. Two automated cars hit a stop sign at the same time — which goes first?
“…focus on the software that builds and operates the system, not the dashboard console.”
So far Silver sees most software developers gravitating towards the deep learning/machine learning side of automated cars — image recognition and processing data from LiDAR sensors. “That resembles traditional engineering because it has less of the mechanical and robotics background,” Silver says. Popular open source machine intelligence library TensorFlow, for example, relies on Python for their primary APIs and does a lot of compiling for faster performance.
Bryan Salesky, CEO of Argo AI, was recently asked about the number one barrier for fully autonomous cars in cities. ”For us, it’s about detecting, seeing, and understanding the world. And going one step beyond that, which is predicting what other actors are going to do.” Any driver knows the importance of eye contact. Now engineers have to train cars to work off signals with equal confidence. Does that jogger see you coming? Can the car tell that person’s blind?
That begs the question of how cars — and engineers — see the data at all. Sensors are processing the world, but how do designers make that data useful? Taxi-hailing giant Uber recently shared how the company is teaching cars to understand not only the unpredictable pieces of the road — kids, potholes, opening car doors — but how they visualize data wrought from maps, high-resolution scans of the ground surface, lane boundaries and types, turn signals, speed limits, crosswalks, and vehicle logs. Uber engineer Xiaoji Chen says one of the biggest challenges of bringing these data sources together into a unified view is organizing the different geo-positioning data formats. They describe positioning differently and even the slightest error can break a visualization. That kind of real-time conversion processing requires unique rendering-visualization skills and GPU programming skills. Then these cars can start making sense of all that data, the way a teenager does after a year of his parents helping him watch and understand the road.
“…what if automated cars are running nine, fifteen, twenty hours each day? How does that change the vehicle?”
Yet engineers needn’t just focus on the variables on the road, but also those under the hood. Sensors are going to have to also get better at monitoring a car’s moving parts because with more automated vehicles Pratz thinks the industry will have to rethink parts replacements. Right now parts and checkups are designed around vehicles that drive a couple hours each day — what if automated cars are running nine, fifteen, twenty hours each day? How does that change the vehicle? Hardware engineers have to rethink their materials and their designs. It will also mean that car makers will need sensors in parts of the vehicle they hadn’t imagined. The car is evolving, so too will its nervous system.
“We live in a world with friction,” Pratz says.” Engineers need to understand that intersection between software and the physical world.”
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