AUTONOMOUS DRIVING Mapping and Driver Monitoring are becoming critical technologies
Increasingly, for autonomous driving to be safe and reliable at SAE Level 3, both high-definition mapping and driver monitoring will be needed by autonomous vehicle platforms.
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) defines Level 3 autonomy as “conditional automation.” This means that a driver can take his or her hands off the steering wheel, but their attention still needs to be kept on the road and their surroundings. Today, there are only a small handful of production cars with this level of autonomy. In all of these cases, SAE Level 3 driving is only possible on highways, where the only objects on the road are other vehicles, and everyone on each side of the highway is traveling at similar speeds in the same direction.
In some places—such as Japan—“hands-free” driving is illegal, even if an autonomous vehicle (AV) is able to drive itself with reasonable competence. Fortunately, however, in Japan, government legislators have determined that another technology can substitute for a driver’s hands on the wheel; that technology is called driver monitoring.
Driver monitoring uses cameras and/or infrared light to scan a person’s eyes, eyelids, and facial expressions to tell where a driver’s attention is focused—whether it’s on the road, on other passengers in a vehicle, or none of the above. As long as cars are not able to operate consistently at SAE Level 4 (“high automation”) or Level 5 (“full automation”), it’s critical that a driver’s attention is not distracted or impaired (either from drowsiness or substances such as alcohol or narcotics).
In cases where it appears a driver may be falling asleep, for instance, a driver monitoring system can sound an alert—or activate a vibration in the driver’s seat or in their seat belt or steering wheel—so the driver can recognize the issue and take appropriate action.
The idea behind SAE Level 3 driving is that a driver needs to be able to take back control of their vehicle within a few seconds if and/or when an AV platform is unable to keep driving the vehicle itself. If a driver is unable to take back control of their vehicle, the AV platform in most circumstances is obligated to bring the vehicle to a stop in a safe manner as quickly as is reasonable.
When one thinks about it, driver monitoring therefore just makes sense to have aboard a vehicle that’s not entirely self-driving; at least for now, there will always be some circumstances when human control of these vehicles will be required (and indeed, currently, SAE Level 3 driving in production cars is only applicable on highways, and even in these cases, there are important operational caveats).
Vision Zero and legal mandates
Another consideration for AVs is that in nearly every case, a carmaker is striving to reach what’s called Vision Zero—a goal of zero fatalities from traffic accidents in the medium-term future (some countries, governments, and manufacturers have set a target date of 2050 for Vision Zero, while others have been more ambitious and set their goal dates earlier).
Much thinking about Vision Zero has to do with speeds that cars operate at. Obviously, the faster a car is traveling, the more risk there is for an accident involving the vehicle to be harmful or even fatal. Highway driving typically necessitates speed. The faster one drives, the more risk there is, so any technology such as driver monitoring that can gain a few extra seconds in terms of driver awareness and response helps save lives.
Realizing this, the European New Car Assessment Program (EuroNCAP) has mandated the inclusion of driver monitoring systems by 2026 and even prior to that if the maker of a vehicle wants it to receive a maximum five-star EuroNCAP rating. In China’s Jiangsu Province, long-distance trucks and vehicles transporting hazardous goods have been required to have driver monitoring systems since 2018, and the rest of China is expected to adopt this policy shortly, with similar regulations for other types of vehicles expected in the future. And finally, several bills under deliberation in the U.S. Congress have included a mandate or at the least an obligation to research the inclusion of driver monitoring systems.
AV platforms use cameras and sensors to scan their surroundings for dangers, including oncoming traffic, cyclists, pedestrians, and obstacles or objects that could pose a risk to vehicles. The faster an AV travels, the greater the risk of an accident, and the better an AV platform needs to do its job.
While multiple cameras, radar, sonar, and LiDAR sensors are highly capable of creating a 3D likeness of a vehicle’s surroundings, additional data in the form of high-definition maps is also used by many AV platforms to combine with camera and sensor data to match up and fill in details. This map data can be stored on disks or in the memory of AV platforms and updated from time to time, but in many cases, the data is fetched in real-time via car connectivity. What this translates to is that when this connectivity is unavailable, AV platforms may not be capable of full or even partial functionality. (It’s notable that some SAE Level 3-and-up AV platforms that use wireless connectivity to get map data won’t work when they’re in a tunnel.)
While some AV platforms create their own maps in real-time from camera and sensor data, this may not always be possible, particularly in instances of extreme weather or other conditions where cameras and/or sensors can fail or be impaired. In essence, more—and higher-resolution—data is always better for AV navigation (as long as platforms are fast enough to handle it), so if high-definition maps of roads and driving environments are available, their use is recommended.
Thus, we can see from the above that both driver monitoring and HD mapping are becoming “must-have” features for AVs. In fact, providers of both of these technologies have seen demand expand for their systems. Dozens of companies making driver monitoring systems have sprung up, and even chipmakers specializing in AV technology have entered the market. Some important companies producing driver monitoring technology include Valeo, Denso, and Smart Eye.
HD map data for entire roads, cities, regions, and countries is becoming increasingly valuable, and makers of AV platforms are starting to make deals or even acquire companies that have this data. Some important players in the HD mapping marketplace include HERE Technologies, DeepMap, NavInfo, and Dynamic Map Platform.