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In pursuit of autonomy

The advent of autonomous vehicles (AVs) is one of the most exciting and challenging developments the automotive industry has experienced.

The progress of these vehicles is complex and requires thousands of hours of research and development. Many vehicles on the road today are already well on the way to becoming fully autonomous, with semi-autonomous features such as adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist now commonplace.

With such complexity surrounding the development and drivers’ understanding of AVs and their capabilities, a set of guidelines has been determined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) to describe the differing levels of autonomy.

There are four distinct levels of autonomy which exist at present to varying degrees, with a potential fifth level some way in the future.

Level 1: the most basic, involves a single aspect of automation using data from sensors and cameras, but the driver is very much still in control. First seen in the late 1990s with the introduction of radar-managed cruise control, while basic lane-keep assist was introduced to consumers in 2008.

Level 2: where vehicles control two or more elements of driving and this is the level high-specification cars operate at today. Computers take over multiple functions from the driver and are intelligent enough to interweave speed and steering systems using multiple data sources. Examples include lane-change functionality and self-parking features. The new Giulia and Stelvio ranges both feature Level 2 autonomy (see page 20).

Level 3: The SAE describes this as ‘conditional automation’ – a specific mode which lets all aspects of driving be done for you, but, crucially, the driver must be able to respond to a request to intervene.

Level 4: driverless cars will be fully autonomous in controlled areas. Early next decade it is expected that vehicles will fully drive themselves in geofenced metropolitan areas, as HD mapping, more timely data, car-to-car communications and off-site call centres (to deal with unusual hazards) improve accuracy.

Level 5: driverless cars will be fully autonomous, in any environment and a driver will optional. The difference between Level 4 and 5 is simple – the last step towards full automation doesn’t require the car to be in the so-called ‘operational design domain’. Rather than working in a carefully managed (usually urban) environment with lots of dedicated lane markings or infrastructure, they will be able to self-drive anywhere.

As part of the FCA commitment to stay at the forefront of the rapid technological changes that are transforming our industry, the organisation is adopting a multi-partner strategy for the development of advanced driver assistance and autonomous driving technologies, working with companies who are leaders in their respective sectors.

With Waymo, Google’s self-driving car project, FCA further strengthened its partnership in 2018, announcing an agreement to deliver up to an additional 62,000 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans to support the launch of the first autonomous-car taxi service. FCA also dedicated a new facility at its Chelsea Proving Grounds in the United States for further development and testing of autonomous vehicles and advanced safety technologies.

Since 2009, Waymo has logged six million miles driven on public roads, five billion miles in simulated environments and run tests covering more than 20,000 types of driving scenarios.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik says: “Waymo’s goal from day one has been to build the world’s most experienced driver and give people access to self-driving technology that will make our roads safer.

“We’re excited to deepen our relationship with FCA that will support the launch of our driverless service and explore future products that support Waymo’s mission.”

FCA extended its collaborations into the commercial vehicle sector in 2019, partnering with Aurora to develop self-driving commercial vans. Aurora is an autonomous vehicle technology start-up backed by Sequoia Capital and Amazon. The partnership will focus on integrating Aurora’s technology into the Ram Truck commercial vehicles line, a portfolio that includes cargo vans and trucks.

The partnership with Aurora aims to develop and deploy self-driving commercial vehicles that could be used by any third party with a delivery-to-consumer need.

Speaking at the time, FCA CEO Mike Manley, said: “As part of FCA’s autonomous vehicle strategy we will continue to work with strategic partners in this space to address the needs of consumers in a rapidly changing industry.”

FCA believes that choosing the right technology at the right moment is key to the organisation’s ability to lead the way in the future of transportation, especially now as emerging technologies are revolutionising the concept of personal mobility.

FCA is ready to tailor both the technologies and the platforms, not only to meet, but also to shape, that new vision.