Innovation

Top 10 developments of 2016 in autonomous vehicles

From the FDA unveiling autonomous vehicle guidelines to Tesla releasing all new models hardware-ready for full autonomy, 2016 has been a huge year for announcements in the driverless space.

Image: Jasper Juinen, Bloomberg via Getty Images

With major driverless vehicle announcements from automakers like Ford and Tesla, US government guidelines on autonomous vehicle development, and companies like Uber introducing self-driving fleets to the public, 2016 has been a huge year in the driverless tech space.

"Automated driving developments in 2016 became more concrete," said Bryant Walker Smith, an expert in legal aspects of autonomous driving, "and I expect developments in 2017 to be even more so. More and more people in the field are saying, 'just do it already'—not to full automation anytime anywhere, but rather to specific pilot projects that will start to showcase high automation under limited conditions." And according to John Dolan, a principal systems scientist in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, "a major trend is the more intensive application of machine learning to autonomous driving." Michael Ramsey, autonomous vehicle analyst for Gartner, also contributed to the list, pointing to the first fatality of a semi-autonomous car as one of the biggest news items of the year.

Here's a list of TechRepublic's top 10 developments in the autonomous vehicle world.

1. General Motors buys Cruise

In March, General Motors bet big on autonomous vehicles by buying the self-driving tech startup Cruise Automation for more than $1 billion. Cruise, a San Francisco-based creator of autonomous vehicle tech, had been testing autonomous technology on its all-electric Chevrolet Bolt EV, and later expanded testing to Scottsdale, AZ.

2. Drive.ai integrates human input

In August, the Silicon Valley startup—a spinoff from Stanford University's AI lab—called Drive.ai announced plans to introduce testing that would factor the human element into autonomous vehicle development. The company believed that weaving in human driver and pedestrian behavior was critical to developing autonomous technology. Dolan said this is a great example of a trend moving from "perception to behaviors and planning that many companies and researchers are pursuing more intensively."

3. Autonomous taxis in Singapore

Singapore became the first country to offer driverless cars to the public, with the Cambridge, MA-based company nuTonomy launching autonomous cabs in the Southeast Asian city-state. During nuTonomy's trial run of the service, the tech company said it planned to collect information and data related to software, vehicle-booking, and how passengers respond to the self-driving cars. The information, nuTonomy said, will later be used for a full-scale commercial launch in 2018.

4. Uber's self-driving fleet in Pittsburgh

Following on the heels of nuTonomy, ride-sharing giant Uber debuted its own fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. Though the cars (like Singapore's) still require a trained engineer as well as a person to take notes to accompany the vehicle), it's clear that this move will have an impact on Uber drivers in Pittsburgh and, presumably, eventually on other drivers throughout the country.

SEE: Tesla's Master Plan 2.0: AI experts, auto insiders, and Tesla customers weigh in (TechRepublic)

According to Dolan, these two developments "are important because there's a clear emphasis there on trying to improve urban, rather than highway, autonomous driving, and the urban use case is far more difficult," said Dolan. "Uber clearly has massive capital resources to apply to autonomous driving, which will accelerate progress."

5. The US Department of Transportation unveils autonomous vehicle guidelines

In September, the US federal government announced its policy for autonomous vehicles, which focused on what the department calls "highly automated vehicles." It's the first time the US government has released anything like this, and an important recognition of the importance of regulations when it comes to safely developing autonomous vehicles and integrating them on public roads.

6. Mobileye and Delphi team up to develop driverless vehicle technology

In this major partnership, two of the top developers of driverless vehicle technology, which includes high-tech sensors, cameras, and mapping systems, announced they will deliver autonomous technology capable of level 4 autonomy to automakers by 2019. Mobileye had previously provided autonomous tech for Tesla, before parting ways in July. It is currently being used by GM, Nissan, VW and other automakers.

SEE: Our autonomous future: How driverless cars will be the first robots we learn to trust (TechRepublic)

7. First known fatality in Tesla's Autopilot mode

In May, Joshua Brown's Tesla Model S crashed into a tractor-trailer that was crossing its path on a high-speed highway. The car was engaged in Autopilot mode—a semi-autonomous feature that allowed the car to adjust speed, switch lanes, and automatically brake. The feature is meant to be employed while drivers are engaged, with hands on the wheel. However, neither Brown, nor the system, succeeded to brake in time to prevent the accident, and Brown was killed.

"The fatality in a Tesla painted a clear picture of what many researchers feared could happen when we automate some but not all of the driving functions," said Ramsey. "The temptation to rely on it is very strong because it functions so well most of the time. Still, how many lives could be saved by a system, even an imperfect system, that is always watching the road? It was the year that the tech moved out of the lab and onto the road, but it's still a long way from finished."

The incident, which was anticipated by many autonomous vehicle experts, was nonetheless an important reminder of the limits of autonomous technology. Although Tesla's updated version of Autopilot, released in September was not said to have been a response to the accident, CEO Elon Musk said that the new software would likely have prevented the fatality.

8. Volvo and Uber teamed up on autonomous vehicle platform

In August, this important collaboration of one of the leaders in driverless car technology and a major automaker, known for its safety record, marked an important moment in the driverless vehicle space, which has become increasingly dependent on key partnerships. The Swedish automaker's "Drive Me" project in Europe is currently testing autonomous vehicles on the roads of Gothenburg, Sweden. TechRepublic previously reported on the partnership, which Volvo said will "jointly finance the development of next generation autonomous driving technology that we would otherwise have had to finance on our own."

SEE: Autonomous driving levels 0 to 5: Understanding the differences (TechRepublic)

9. Uber buys Otto for over $680 million

Uber's purchase of Otto, a driverless trucking startup, in August, marked a significant step in its driverless technology portfolio, with trucking considered by some to be the likely first place for widespread adoption of autonomous vehicle technology. In Germany, Daimler's autonomous 18-wheelers are already driving on public roads.

10. Fully-autonomous hardware available in all new Teslas

In October, a major announcement came from one of the leaders in the driverless space: Every Tesla in production—as well as the Model 3, set to be unveiled in mid-2018—has the hardware to be fully-autonomous, and the software will be available in 2018.

On top of these, there are other important developments to note, such as: The expansion of Toyota Research Institute, the offer of Tesla to provide Autopilot driving data to the DOT, Ford's announcement that it will have fully-autonomous vehicles in 2021, and Apple's recent letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggesting that it is interested in machine learning and automation. These are all indications of rapid advancement happening in the development of autonomous vehicles and systems, and advances in tech show no signs of slowing down in 2017.

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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