Driverless cars get careers on the road

The next few years will represent an extremely exciting time for the autonomous vehicle industry, spawning some new career paths for young engineers and technologists.

For large swathes of the general public, driverless cars are still the stuff of science fiction. At universities, research institutes and automotive organisations across the world, however, they are already part of day-to-day work. Many big names from the automotive world, including Ford, Jaguar Land Rover and Volvo as well as the likes of ride-sharing companies and tech giants are engaged in collaborations and trials of autonomous vehicles and technologies.

According to Juniper Research, the annual production of self-driving cars will reach 14.5 million in 2025 to give an installed global base of more than 22 million consumer vehicles. Research author Gareth Owen declared that driverless cars will result in not just fundamental changes to the automotive world but for “society in general”.

Professor Neville Stanton is chair in Human Factors Engineering and director of the Human Factors Engineering Team at the Transportation Research Group, University of Southampton, which is involved in two automated driving projects. He says many of the vehicle manufacturers are already employing engineers to design and develop autonomous vehicles and agrees the impact will be profound.

“Fully automated vehicles will negate the need for taxi drivers, chauffeurs, lorry drivers, bus drivers, and so on,” he says. “It is anticipated that vehicle autonomy will be with us in the next 5-10 years.”

One of the projects the university is involved in is the £11 million research programme to develop fully autonomous cars, jointly funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Jaguar Land Rover.

The broad and ongoing challenge for developers, explains Professor Stanton, is in the area of artificial intelligence (AI).

“If the vehicle is to be truly autonomous, it needs to be intelligent enough to handle a wide range of situations and events that cannot be pre-programmed.”

With many pilots so far taking place in private areas, one of the next key stages for advancement is real road trials. The UK has had its first trial of a self-driving vehicle in public area last October. It marked the conclusion of the LUTZ (Low-carbon Urban Transport Zone) Pathfinder autonomous project and saw a LUTZ pod demonstrated on pavements around Milton Keynes’ train station and business district. A trained engineer was in the vehicle ready to take back control if needed but the pods navigated on their own.

The project was overseen by the UK innovation centre for intelligent mobility, Transport Systems Catapult, and the pods built by Coventry-based automotive innovation company RDM. They were equipped with autonomous control systems developed by the University of Oxford’s world-leading Oxford Robotics Institute and utilised an array of 19 sensors, cameras and Lidar scanners.

The demo vehicle was created by Oxford University spin-out company Oxbotica, which in January released its Dub4 camera-based localisation software for autonomous vehicles, which aims to address the key challenge of autonomy: where the vehicle is at any point in time. CEO Graeme Smith, says it represents a “seismic shift” for the self-driving vehicle industry, “enabling a move away from GPS and 3D laser-based approaches”. “We’re paving the way for more affordable and accurate solutions in the industry,” he says.

Alexander Eriksson, senior research assistant and PhD candidate in HF-Auto, a Marie Curie ITN automated driving project at the University of Southampton, says the opportunity to work with driverless tech is booming.

“Potential careers range from working on pure sensing hardware such as new radars, camera-systems, processors and lidars, to deep learning/neural network and AI, to algorithm design, active safety systems and of course human factors which will be crucial until cars can safely drive from A to B without ever needing or expecting human intervention,” he says.

Eriksson’s research as part of the HF-Auto project focuses on human-automation interaction. The university recently released details of a study exploring the length of time needed for a driver to switch from automated vehicle control to manual vehicle control. This is crucial for the safety of future automated vehicles.

“For the initial steps of automation (SAE Level 1-3), the human must be in the centre when it comes to designing these systems as they are expected to be there to resume control when the automated driving systems are not able to remain in control.”

Another challenge is assessing the effect of these systems on drivers when they are not being monitored. “People tend to change their behaviour when they know they are being watched,” he says. “Which is a well-established bias in research, but could have some implications in the results we are seeing.”

Eriksson says the most exciting aspect of his research work in the field has been the impact it has had on industry.

“The HF Auto project has really facilitated connections between academia and industry in the UK and abroad,” he says. “Moreover, it is really exciting to be a part of the early stages, and be involved in both the human-performance/psychology as well as the engineering end of things.”

Eriksson, who has a MSc in cognitive science focusing on human factors, says his own route into the world of autonomous cars was “fairly random” but believes “a genuine interest” is the best motivator.

“There are some trends in the field showing great promise for experts in machine learning/deep learning, computer vision, and sensor development,” he says. “I have always strived to do what I find interesting, and I enjoy learning about things I find interesting. And that will take you as far as you want.”

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