NovAtel’s interest in autonomous vehicle development dates to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge in the California desert more than a decade ago and, later, its Urban Challenge counterpart.
The Grand Challenge winner, Stanford University’s Stanley vehicle, incorporated NovAtel’s ProPak dual-frequency GNSS+INS that used a Satellite Based Augmentation System (SBAS) to improve positioning.
Earlier this year, NovAtel formed a safety critical systems group to leverage its experience in aviation technology to meet requirements for driverless cars. The company honed its certified development expertise in such programs as the Federal Aviation Administration’s Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) and other SBAS.
Through the safety critical systems group initiative, NovAtel will not only offer products for autonomous vehicles, but for agriculture, mining and other markets that not only include those in the commercial sector, but for military use.
“The group formally has been in existence for about seven months,” says Auld, adding that the team has been working on the problem for more than a year. The team is not currently a separate business division, but rather a separate business/engineering team inside NovAtel that focuses exclusively on safety critical applications. In addition to the autonomous vehicle challenges, NovAtel continues to support the ground reference station business that underpins the SBAS markets where the company has already been successful.
Auld says he is optimistic about the continued rollouts of autonomous vehicles, but cautious about the timeline.
“The coming years will see an increase in the level of automation that is available on road vehicles, but I’m not convinced that the fully automated solution will be widespread in five years,” he says. “There are still many technical and legislative hurdles to overcome in order to make fully autonomous vehicles safe and reliable.”
The long-haul trucking and freight market may be a big driver for future autonomous vehicle rollouts, Auld says.
“I think one of the first areas that may start the push for autonomy is the semi/tractor-trailer freight side of things. This industry continues to grow, but also continues to have trouble finding drivers,” he says. “If most freight could be moved without the limitation of a human driver, there is significant opportunity to improve efficiencies and safety.”
This would also be an advantage to a significant amount of operations in rural areas rather than urban, he adds.
Hambrick sees autonomous vehicle development evolving so fast that it won’t just be tailored to passenger cars, public transit, or long-haul fleets. “I believe that the [autonomous vehicle] technology is at a tipping point—and soon every vehicle on wheels, in all industries, will begin to adopt it. [We] are in a very unique position by being in the middle of the transformation of the future of transportation,” he says.
Full autonomous driving, or Level 5 on the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) safety scales, basically says all functions, including driving, will be handled by the vehicle, not a driver. Most government entities, and the automotive industry, do not believe this full capability will be a reality until at least 2025.