Even if a trip is only a few blocks, human drivers need to make hundreds of calculations in order to reach their destination safely, and we do it without much thought. For example, is it raining, sunny, clear, or foggy? Is it early morning when kids are walking to school or later in the day?
For computers to safely drive cars, they must also take these scenarios into consideration—in fact, they must have the ability to consider every possible scenario. That’s why I predict 2017 will be the year that artificial intelligence (AI) supercharges self-driving technology.
In the next year and beyond, we’ll see AI take autonomy to unprecedented levels and allow vehicles to become fully aware of their surroundings.
“AI means everything for autonomous driving,” Ian Beavis, chief strategy officer AMCI, an automotive marketing and testing firm, recently told Wards Auto. “Without AI and machine learning, you can’t put vehicles in unknown environments. It allows autonomy to run free.”
Follow the Money
To get a sense of the impact AI will have on self-driving, just follow the money being invested in the technology.
Toyota alone is pouring $1 billion into AI research over the next five year and has set up an entirely separate division of the company, Toyota Research Institute (TRI), to focus on R&D in the area. Toyota also scored a high-profile hire when it brought in Gill Pratt—a roboticist and former official at DARPA, the research arm of the Pentagon that was instrumental in kick-starting self-driving technology—as CEO of TRI.
Toyota initially is looking to use AI to improve driver-assist systems to help avoid accidents. “The intelligence of the car would figure out a plan for evasive action,” Pratt told Reuters in June. “Essentially [AI would] be like a guardian angel, pushing on the accelerators, pushing on the steering wheel, pushing on the brake in parallel with you.”
Like other automakers, Toyota eventually plans to leverage its AI investment into self-driving cars and produce a vehicle that can autonomously drive on highways by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Toyota’s Japanese rival Honda is also “setting up a new research body which would focus on artificial intelligence,” according to Reuters, as are other global automakers like Ford and Volkswagen.
Large automotive suppliers and others in the self-driving race are also pouring resources into AI as well as acquiring startups in the space. Danny Shapiro, senior director of automotive at graphic chipmaker Nvidia, told Wards Auto that AI and the “deep learning” by computers it enables “will truly transform the automotive market.”
In addition to developing its own self-driving computers, Nvidia has also invested in the startup AImotive, while Uber earlier this month acquired AI startup Geometric Intelligence and named the company’s founders as co-directors of the ride-sharing behemoth’s in-house AI research lab.
Another indicator that AI will fuel self-driving car technology in 2017 is news that Apple is delving into R&D in the area. In an unprecedented move by the normally secretive Cupertino tech giant, researchers at Apple published a paper on artificial intelligence that considers new ways to teach machines how to recognize images as part of self-driving technology.
This follows a letter from the company to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration late last month stating that “Apple uses machine learning to make its products and services smarter, more intuitive, and more personal. The company is investing heavily in the study of machine learning and automation, and is excited about the potential of automated systems in many areas, including transportation.”
“Deep learning is the best enabling technology for self-driving cars,” Sameep Tandon, CEO and co-founder of Drive.ai, told Fortune in August. “You hear a lot about all these things on the car: the sensors, the cameras, the radar, and lidar. What we really need is the brains to make an autonomous car work safely and understand its environment.”
And this means you’ll be hearing a lot more about AI and self-driving cars in 2017.