Safety, Standards Crucial to AVs’ Advance

Bill Visnic, Editorial Director

The details and cost of the Biden Administration’s $1.2-trillion ($555 billion in new spending) federal infra- structure bill may have been exhaustively debated by the time it was passed last November, but few could argue that substantial investment in the nation’s systems wasn’t long overdue. I feel no shame in admitting I didn’t deeply examine its 2,700 pages (most lawmakers didn’t either), but many have speculated on what the bill may portend for AV development.

A particular area of interest is the provision to “advance” drunk- and impaired-driving prevention with some kind of passive technology. Nobody yet knows exactly what that technology might be, but it’s probable that any effective design will be based on, or collaborate with, some of today’s advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) and higher-level automation development. New federal investment funds flowing to automakers, suppliers and other innovators is likely to hasten engineering of driver assistance and automation on many fronts — impaired-driving prevention is just going to be one of the more high-profile efforts.

There’s also funding in the new bill for SMART — Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation. It’s a five-year, $100-million grant-formatted program for “use of automated transportation and autonomous vehicles.” There’s also some money for other AV-related research, but not much talk about any new regulatory actions.

I reckon that’s okay for now, because the AV “industry” seems to be settling into a controlled consolidation. Like much of what causes controversy in the transportation sector — particularly when it comes to private autos and commercial carriers — issues that caused initial angst are being diligently addressed. I’m particularly encouraged by the steady progress of a handful of dedicated and prudent developers who maybe aren’t quite on the ambitious timelines they once set for themselves, but are progressing toward SAE Levels 4 and 5 automation.

To me, two pieces in this issue of AVE prove the concept that steady engineering practices are paying off. Senior editor Paul Seredynski’s coverage of Horiba’s new simulator that marries the virtual and real worlds (p. 22) brings into focus how a standardized testing regimen for AVs (and ADAS) can fulfill manifold development quandaries. Consider this statement from Leo Breton, Horiba’s technology development director, that seems to summarize both the “big” and the “little” pictures: “Any given sensor may not even be available in two or three years, so we can’t be developing just based on the specific sensor. We have to develop methods and technologies that go beyond a specific sensor. In the future, maybe everyone will settle out on one or two systems once things are fully evolved 10 to 15 years from now. But right now, things are evolving very quickly. We have to keep that in mind and not make our solutions dependent upon specific models of sensors.”

Meanwhile, expert columnist Sam Abuelsamid’s overview of the potential for imaging radar reminds me that, at any time, a new technology may deliver the radical leap in capability or cost-reduction that makes what was impossible yesterday markedly more viable today. Timelines remain as sketchy as ever, but these pieces suggest that engineers are turning a corner on AV development, collectively more confident in saying, “Yeah, we got this.”