Autonomous (driverless or self-driving) cars will require unprecedented software and hardware reliability. This need may require double or triple redundancies in some critical systems. Those of us in electronics assembly think first of the reliability issues with hardware, but software concerns may be even greater. Almost every day we have to reboot one of our electronic devices to get it working, due to software issues, yet seldom have a hardware fail. So the equivalent of the “blue screen of death,” may be the greatest concern for this future technology.
Still, hardware reliability will be a critical issue. Therefore we can expect our colleagues in automotive electronics assembly to be the most demanding in history regarding reliability.
Just how far in the future is the autonomous automobile? Some may think it is already here after reading about the auto accident death of a man while his Tesla was doing the driving. However, this accident was caused by an auto with only the L2 capability of automation. In L2 automation only speed and lane changing is performed by the auto and only in special circumstances. The human is still in control.
The industry has defined 5 levels of automation, as shown in Figure 1 below. Only L4 or L5 is true automation. In L5, the auto would likely not have a steering wheel, as the human does not take part in driving at all. Figure 1 came from a recent article in Scientific American by Steven Shladover. Shladover argues that L4 and L5 vehicles are decades away, at the earliest 2045. Informal discussions I have had with a leader in the industry, who does not want to be quoted, agrees with this perspective.
Many argue that it makes no sense to have L2 and L3 vehicles as the driver could lose focus while the auto is driven autonomously, and not be alert when needed. When the L4-/L5-era arises it will likely reduce the death toll from accidents significantly. When one considers that 100 people in the US are killed each day in auto accidents, this benefit will be welcome indeed.
Fully autonomous cars will be a major technology disruption. According to John Krafix, CEO of the Google Self-Driving Car Project, we use our cars only 4% of the time. In the era of driverless cars, why have the expense of owning one, when you can summon one for a much lower yearly cost?
It will be interesting to watch all of this unfold, and it will present new and rewarding challenges to those of us in electronics assembly. However, sadly, most of us working today will be well past retirement by the time it comes to full fruition.