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Vehicle autonomy and the future of electrical engineering

The future is here, and someday when we all get into our self-driving vehicles, we will wonder how generations past did anything else.

futuristic self driving vehicles on the road with trees around the sides

Have you ever watched a science fiction movie where amazing futuristic innovations were flying or driving across the screen?

Did you ever believe these inventions would happen in your lifetime? Well, the future is here in the form of a self-driving vehicle.

Better known as autonomous electric vehicles (AEV), these marvels of modern technology use a combination of sensors, cameras, and other advanced technology to monitor the areas around the vehicle and see if any structures are up ahead.

As automobile accident rates are increasing due to driver error, automotive manufacturers are looking at new ways to build safer vehicles that don’t rely on human drivers.  

What is an autonomous electric vehicle?

tesla self-driving
Image: Pexels

An autonomous electric vehicle is a vehicle that doesn’t require a human driver.

Therefore, it uses a combination of radar, sensors, cameras, and artificial intelligence to navigate the route between destinations.

A fully autonomous vehicle needs to do this without human intervention, and several levels of autonomy are used to measure this. 

Levels of autonomy

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) details the six levels of autonomy, starting with Level 0, where the vehicle can only be driven with assistance from a human being.

The other five levels detail and explore autonomous features up to the fully autonomous vehicle that requires no assistance. 

Level 1

This level involves an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) that helps the driver with functions of the vehicle, like steering, accelerating, and braking, but not simultaneously.

Moreover, this system involves rear cameras that can capture any object behind the vehicle. Additionally, it sets warnings for the drivers if they drift out of their lane.

These safety features are standard with commercial vehicles, and a driver-assistance system is typically available with new vehicles. 

Level 2

uber self-driving car
Image: Uber

Level 2 autonomy involves an advanced driver-assistance system that can steer, brake, or accelerate simultaneously while the driver is behind the wheel driving.

The vehicle can take over the task of driving, but the driver can regain control at any time.

Level 3

Level 3 involves an automated driving system (ADS) rather than a driver-assistance system that can perform all driving under certain circumstances.

An example of Level 3 is a vehicle that can park for the driver without assistance. However, the human driver still needs to be alert and take control of the car most of the time.

Level 3 is where the vehicle begins to detect the surroundings and learn the environment around the car. 

Level 4

This level is where the human driver is more of a passenger and can sit back and relax while the automated driving system performs all the tasks and monitors the environment.

A vehicle is reliable enough at this level that the human can do other things while riding and not pay as much attention as the different levels.

Level 5

Level 5 is the epitome of autonomy, where a vehicle does everything a human driver would do while the passengers sit back and are not expected to monitor the vehicle.

This is the level that automakers are striving to achieve because it provides you with a virtual chauffeur. So you are free to do other things during the car ride instead of paying attention to traffic.

There are some Level 5 vehicles in the testing stage that have promising results, showing that vehicles with this capability can be made inexpensively and therefore be attainable for anyone. 

How do self-driving cars work?

image of a baidu self-driving car on road
Image: Baidu

Autonomous electric vehicles work via artificial intelligence, which uses huge amounts of data to build a system to aid the vehicle in getting around without the help of a driver.

The systems include image recognition, machine learning, and neural networks that require a high degree of engineering expertise to maintain and execute.

Neural networks identify the patterns in large amounts of data, which are then fed into computer-learning algorithms.

The neural networks then learn to identify things like traffic lights, curbs, trees, pedestrians, street signs, and other natural parts of a driving environment.

Therefore, it is essentially the car going to driving school and learning what to look out for. This system can reduce accidents because artificial intelligence can sense what is around the vehicle.

Additionally, the car can predict what those objects could be and make driving choices accordingly within seconds. The system only gets better the more it works, as it will learn more every time it goes out for a drive. 

An example of how an advanced system works is Google’s Waymo project:

  • The passenger sets the destination, and the vehicle’s software calculates the best route. 
  • A rotating sensor on the roof monitors a range of up to 60 meters around the car and creates a 3D map of the environment around the vehicle.
  • Another sensor on the left rear wheel detects any sideways movement to monitor the vehicle’s position in relation to the 3D map.
  • Radars on both bumpers calculate obstacles and the vehicle’s distance from them.
  • Artificial intelligence software is linked to all the sensors and collects data from Google’s Street View software and the data from the video cameras in the vehicle.
  • The deep learning of the artificial intelligence system simulates human perception and decision-making abilities to control actions like steering, brakes, and acceleration. 
  • The vehicle’s software communicates with Google Maps to get any advanced notice of upcoming landmarks or issues like accidents, traffic signs, and traffic lights.
  • An override function is built into the system should the driver need to take control of the vehicle.

This type of system is a truly autonomous vehicle where the driver is only there to take control of the car if needed. 

Benefits of self-driving vehicles

cars on the highway using gps
Image: Unsplash

Safety

It is estimated that 94% of all traffic incidents are caused by driver error or poor driver behavior.

With the advent of autonomous vehicles, traveling won’t rely on a human being’s ability to focus and follow the rules of the road.

Therefore, it would seem logical that the incidence of traffic accidents could be reduced to zero. 

Independence

A self-driving car could bring much-wanted independence to those individuals who cannot drive due to a disability.

Such as the older adult who can no longer drive because of macular degeneration or the woman who is paralyzed from the waist down and no longer needs to depend on other people to get around for errands.

A self-driving car is an excellent solution for those who still want to maintain their independence and live a high-quality life without depending on others.

Saves money

These vehicles could help save money on insurance claims because the occurrence of accidents will go down.

With time, insurance rates for self-driven cars could also be reduced because the instances of claims will fall drastically.

In addition, with ever-rising gas prices, people could save money since these vehicles are electric. 

Increased productivity

tesla autopilot elon musk
Image: Automobile Magazine

Passengers will no longer have to watch the car in front of them during bumper-to-bumper traffic jams.

Additionally, they can read a book, finish a report, or rest in preparation for the day ahead.

The technology could also allow the vehicle to drop passengers off at their destination and then go park itself.

Reduces congestion

These vehicles can relieve traffic congestion by reducing the number of accidents that cause delays. 

Better for the environment

Reducing traffic jams means less idling and fewer greenhouse gases damaging the atmosphere. A self-driving vehicle is also a perfect means for carpooling, reducing the number of cars on the road.

Autonomous electric vehicle engineering

Engineering in the area of autonomous vehicles is challenging. It can also be a rewarding interdisciplinary profession that involves education in computer science, robotics, automotive, and machine learning.

Therefore, engineers in this industry can look for employment with one of the major automotive companies leading the way in leading-edge innovations.

If you’re interested in working with autonomous vehicles, you can enroll in an ECE master’s program like the one offered at Kettering University Online.

Moreover, this type of program is specifically designed to teach the engineering of electric and autonomous vehicles with sights toward the future of the automotive industry.

Engineering self-driving cars go beyond traditional engineering education and branches into many areas of expertise. 

Qualities of an autonomous electric vehicle engineer

car engineer in car testing self driving with computer
Image: Unsplash

When you pursue a master’s in electrical and computer engineering for advanced mobility systems, you will be focusing on the following aspects:

  • The integration of computer systems and electrical systems for use in self-driving vehicles and other advanced mobility applications
  • The development of advanced mobility applications for electric, autonomous, and hybrid vehicles, as well as other transportation systems – specifically, how to develop artificial intelligence and robotics systems as they apply to the area of advanced mobility applications
  • How to design dynamic systems that enhance autonomous functionality
  • Robotics as enhanced by AI

It takes a dedicated individual with a keen mind and eyes for the future to endeavor to become a self-driving car engineer.

If you work full-time, you can pursue your degree online. Therefore, this in itself requires a determination and discipline unique to independent learners. 

This career is not a race to the finish but a marathon that will take you into new technology areas.

The innovations you will be working on will constantly be expanded as the area of autonomous vehicles changes and improves by leaps and bounds.

You may want to look into this dynamic career if you have some of these characteristics:

  • Being a lifelong learner who is willing to enhance their skills and knowledge continually
  • A passion for research to help improve the technology
  • Dedication to solving problems and persisting even when faced with a difficult task
  • An aptitude for programming and clean coding
  • The ability to think technically 
  • Able to analyze systems to find out deficiencies 

Individuals with existing backgrounds in engineering with various styles, interests, and skill sets can find great success in teaming up with a company that is involved in autonomous vehicle engineering.

uber self-driving cars
Image: NPR

There are many fields open to someone with an advanced degree, which include:

  • Robotics engineer: A robotics engineer works on integrating robots into existing technologies such as autonomous vehicles, submersibles, autonomous aerial vehicles, and other types of robots
  • Electrical engineer: An electrical engineer focuses on working with electromagnetism, electricity, and electronics
  • Systems engineer: This is an engineer who develops and maintains functional systems (e.g., wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems, aerospace satellite communication systems, cloud computing systems) 
  • Controls and drives engineer: This type of engineer focuses on maintaining the software and hardware for the functional components of the artificial intelligence system, such as actuators and sensors.
  • Computer programmer: This is someone who writes and tests computer programming code for software and hardware operation
  • Sensor system engineer: A sensor system engineer focuses on the software and hardware aspects of sensor systems such as radar, lidar, and cameras

Becoming an autonomous vehicle engineer involves interdisciplinary study in the fields of software engineering, mathematics, and robotics.

In addition, computer programming, sensors, automotive design and mechanics, and mechanical engineering are also required.

It is the evolution of engineering, and it is a fascinating prospect to see what innovations will come next. 

Final thoughts

tesla car
Image: Pexels

The future is here, and someday when we all get into our self-driving vehicles without steering wheels, we will wonder how generations past did anything else.

Our gas-driven vehicles that need to be steered by humans will go the way of the horse and carriage.

Accidents will cease to exist because future cars will be fine-tuned to each other and continue to learn more with each passing day.

Autonomous electric vehicle technology is more accessible than we may think. Moreover, certain companies are striving to make this technology as affordable as possible.

How electric self-driving vehicles will help our environment and driver safety is remarkable.

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Chris has been blogging since the early days of the internet. He primarily focuses on topics related to tech, business, marketing, and pretty much anything else that revolves around tech. When he's not writing, you can find him noodling around on a guitar or cooking up a mean storm for friends and family.

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