Self-driving vehicles are today one of the main axes of mobility development in all Western countries. In its strategy for smart and sustainable mobility, the European Commission is committed to promoting all connected and automatic mobility systems that can contribute to the achievement of the previously set sustainability and safety objectives .
When it comes to autonomous vehicles, one aspect needs to be clarified. There are different levels of automation in a vehicle, which have been the subject of various classifications and debates, including ethical as well as technological ones. The term "autonomous vehicle" is therefore generic: according to the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), automation can be complete, high, conditional, partial or can be configured as a simple "driver assistance". To date, the idea of total automation is far off: on the respective territories, the French government estimates that between 2030 and 2050 an "almost total" level of autonomy will be reached , while the German one has ruled out this possibility . To date, even vehicles deemed to be autonomous require a safety driver, who intervenes promptly if necessary. However, it is the user who decides to set the autonomous driving function, and can deactivate it when he wants. After activating this function, it is no longer the driver who is responsible for the vehicle, but a computer program.
But what are the technologies underlying autonomy? First of all, the driving order: the vehicle must know the destination and evaluate the fastest way to reach it; then self-positioning: it is essential that the car "knows" at all times where it is precisely; self-assessment of your own status: there are a series of parameters that must be constantly monitored, such as the speed at which the vehicle is proceeding, the availability of fuel or the battery charge level, the temperature and operation of the important systems; finally, knowledge of the surrounding environment and the traffic situation: the position of buildings, other vehicles in circulation, other obstacles, pedestrians, road signs and traffic lights .
It is clear that vehicles must therefore manage and process a considerable amount of information, which requires powerful computers and programs. Think of the task of recognizing a vehicle in front of you: only after processing thousands of images, artificial intelligence will be able to recognize a vehicle it has never seen before.
In order to fully express its potential, the autonomous vehicle needs to move in an environment that is digitized, with systems compatible with those of the vehicle itself: digital road signs, digital maps and sensors, the pervasiveness of which will be facilitated in the future thanks to the spread of 5G. The development of digital infrastructures and the interconnection of road networks are therefore an indispensable element for the development of autonomous driving technologies, and with these they must constitute a single system. Think of a large connected garage: this could provide the vehicle with information on the number and position of free spaces, in order to facilitate and speed up parking.
The opportunities that this technology offers to the transport sector are many. Among these there is certainly an increase in road safety: just think that 90% of fatal accidents occur due to human error. Autonomous vehicles could help improve traffic fluidity: an automatic driving system should interface with many sources of environmental information which, after monitoring the traffic and weather conditions of the routes to be tackled, could suggest alternative or faster routes. This possibility, together with the ability to adapt driving methods to the situation, would make it possible to optimize the use of fuel and reduce emissions. Furthermore, the intelligent vehicle is perfectly compatible with the electric propulsion systems that all European countries are betting on. Another advantage of autonomous driving is the ability to use the travel time to do other things, such as emailing, reading or watching a movie.
Research in this sector today focuses on three axes: the development of programs, which must guarantee the total reliability of the vehicle; the human-machine interface and the human factor in systems management; cyber-security, which comes into play when the flow of personal data necessary for the operation of autonomous vehicles increases. The good news lies in the fact that these research directions all fall within the category of those of artificial intelligence, which becomes a constant for the development of technology in various sectors. The challenge that will arise in the legislative field is also interesting, as autonomous driving needs its own regulation, subject to heated controversies so far.
At this point one wonders what are the actual growth prospects of this technology in the immediate future. For public transport, urban tram and train solutions with autonomous driving functions already exist. In the next few years, we may see autonomous taxis appear with digital systems for car-sharing, operating within limited areas. As for private transport, however, the goal of developing a totally autonomous vehicle is still far away, especially in complex traffic conditions. However, already in the next few years it will be possible to purchase cars with increasingly sophisticated autonomous driving functions. Within a decade, several cities could also offer the infrastructure necessary to create environmental digital systems that allow the use of some autonomous driving functions. Even if the change will be gradual, let's expect a totally new path.
Translated by Veronica Giustiniani
 Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy – putting European transport on track for the future, 09/12/2020, https://ec.europa.eu/transport/sites/transport/files/legislation/com20200789.pdf
 Développement du véhicule automatisé – Orientations stratégiques pour l’action publique, maggio 2018, p. 18, https://www.ecologique-solidaire.gouv.fr/sites/default/files/90p%20VDEF.pdf.
 Bundesministerium für Verkehr und digitale Infrastruktur: Strategie automatisiertes und vernetztes Fahren, sett. 2015., https://www.bmvi.de/SharedDocs/DE/Publikationen/DG/broschuere-strategie-automatisiertes-vernetztes-fahren.pdf?__blob=publicationFile
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