Self-Driving RVs: The Roadmap to the Future of Automated RV Revolution

self-driving rv

Image: by Jaymantri, via Pexels

Some of us might remember important inventions like microwaves, VCRs, and cell phones.

Granted, those were incredibly important inventions that changed the way many of us live.

like some kind of caveman giphy

Image via Giphy

Very few of us can remember the big ones, though:

Like the shift from horses to cars, for example.

wild horse running crazy is pulling a wagon with a man sitting on it

Image via Giphy

Well, we are all about to get our chance to watch the world change before our very eyes.

It's time to get excited because RVs that can drive themselves are already a reality and could be on their way to your town by the year 2025.

Which leads us to the question:

How do self-driving vehicles work, anyway?

Today, we will dig deep and find out both the history of this amazing science as well as the technology that makes it all work.

But:

Before we can dig into the exciting concept of driver-less autonomous RVs, we have to get savvy on the history of self-driving vehicles. 

It All Started with Planes, Trains, and Torpedoes

Here's what you should know:

You can trace the technology used in today's autonomous vehicles all the way back to the 1860s.

Back then, Robert Whitehead invented a self-propelled torpedo that included a primitive guidance system designed to maintain depth.

ship exploded while sailing in the middle of the ocean

Image via Giphy

At the time, the technology was so new and so groundbreaking, that Whitehead called it, "The Secret."

Progress

It didn't take long, then, for everything from boats to airplanes to have self-guided systems on board.

Amazingly, the Wright brothers invented the world's first airplane in 1903, and by 1912, the Sperry Corporation had already invented auto-pilot.

Fun Fact!

A brown diagram of several DaVinci inventions including a balloon, a boat, and some gears

Leonardo Da Vinci invented the world's very first self-propelled vehicle in 1478. Image: by DarkWorkX, via Pixabay

So, as you can see, the earliest versions of the technology worked incredibly well and came about quickly.

However, putting a car on auto-pilot creates unique challenges those other guys didn't face.

There are countless things that cars and RVs have to deal with that boats, trains, and planes simply don't have to worry about.

As quickly as the technology improved for everything else, the challenge to make it work for cars and RVs has had people scratching their heads for decades.

Well, for the most part, anyway. 

Back to basics:

To make an autonomous RV or car function, the technology needs to do the following:

  • 1
    Scan surroundings and create as well as maintain maps of its surrounding areas using sensors like radar
  • 2
    Process those external inputs and use them to plot a path
  • 3
    Sends those instructions to the vehicle's "actuators" (that controls the acceleration, steering, braking, and steering)
  • 4
    Constantly scan and remember traffic rules, "object discrimination" (knowing the difference between a bicycle and a pedestrian), and navigate obstacles

There are a few notable exceptions.

Self-Driving Cars and RVs Will save More Lives than You Might Think

Experts estimate that driver-less vehicles could save nearly 30,000 lives every month.

Why is that?

You see, a shift to autonomous vehicles will virtually eliminate automobile accidents.

“By midcentury, the penetration of [autonomous vehicles] and other [advanced driver-assistance systems] could ultimately cause vehicle crashes in the United States to fall from second to ninth place in terms of their lethality ranking among accident types,” wrote Michele Bertoncello and Dominik Wee.

Overall, according to estimates, reducing car accidents by even 90 percent could save as much as $90 billion a year in healthcare costs alone.

The Very First Self-Driving Vehicles

These days, we know that technology is finally catching up and doing what we need it to do.

How do self-driving vehicles work?

Cameras: many autonomous vehicles use cameras to spot things like lines on the highway, traffic lights, and speed signs. Someday, developers hope to create a camera so advanced it can recognize everything it sees and navigate around it accordingly. 

You might be surprised by a few of the semi-successful attempts from different corners of the globe over the past several decades.

1925 Houdina radio-controlled car

This is pretty cool:

In 1925, U.S. Army engineer Francis P. Houdina designed what's hailed as the first radio-operated self-driving car.

He used a 1926 Chandler sedan and installed a transmitting antenna.

Fun Fact!

 houdina's invention of an electric motor controlled vehicle

The famous escape artist Houdini was not a fan of Houdina's invention, as its name so closely mirrored his name as did the "magic," nature of the vehicle. The final straw was when Houdini found out Houdina had received some of his mail.


Apparently, the magician and a friend broke into Houdina's offices and demanded Houdini's mail back. When the company wouldn't comply and tried to secure Houdini, he broke a chandelier making his escape.

Small electrical motors inside the vehicle controlled the car's speed as well as direction.

A crew followed behind the car, controlling the Chandler from there.

The GM Firebird

We're not through yet:

In 1956, GM made an impressive showing with its Firebird II concept car.

The Firebird II is a gas-powered car with a turbine engine like a jet.

The Firebird II also includes an automatic driving system controlled by an electronic strip on the highway running underneath the car.

Check out the video they made the publicize the car:

Development of the GM idea kept momentum for a while at different locations around the world -- with different groups attempting to add sensors under the highway.

Unfortunately, despite everyone's efforts, electronic roads never became a reality.

1958 Chrysler Imperial

The invention of the GM Firebird is extra-impressive when you realize that cruise-control wasn't even available until Chrysler put it in the 1958 Imperial.

Check it out in the video below:

At the time, the new tech wasn't called cruise control, though. It was called "auto-pilot."

Yes, you read that right.

The Father of Artificial Intelligence

Get this:

One of the most important revolutions in the self-driving car technology took place in the late 1960s.

How do self-driving vehicles work?

Lidars: A Lidar is a spinning thing you have seen on the top of most self-driving vehicles. Lidar stands for "light detection and ranging." This equipment fires out millions of laser beams each second, then measures how long it takes for them to bounce back.


After that, it processes that information and turns it into a 3D map. The 3D map is easier for the computer to understand than a two-dimensional camera image. Right now, Lidars are super expensive to produce. However, there are a ton of startups working to bring those costs down as we speak.

John McCarthy, working for the Stanford Computer Science Department, devised a system that would work through cameras and a computer that could make its own decisions.

Check out the video below where McCarthy talks about the challenges he faced:

Unfortunately, at the time McCarthy invented it, AI still had a long way to go before it was going to work for an autonomous vehicle.

McCarthy's Work Sparked a Revolution

Finally, in the early 1990s, a researcher from Carnegie Mellon named Dean Pomerleau took the next big step.

Pomerleau wrote a Ph.D. thesis that described how neural networks could take things to the next level.

How do self-driving vehicles work?

Machine learning: the world of driving is far too complex to write a hard and fast set of rules for a self-driving car. So, machine learning is artificial intelligence tools that train computers to do things like recognize the lines in the road and identify things like cyclists, children, and other hazards.


Researchers accomplished this by showing the machines millions of examples. Overall, the key is to have a vehicle that can learn from its experiences and figure out how to navigate them on its own.

Here's what we found:

You see, a neural network could allow the autonomous vehicle to take in a raw image of the road and create output for the steering controls in real time.

Production of Navlab 1 began in 1986.

"An invention has to make sense in the world it finishes in, not in the world it started." -- Tim O'Reilly

ALVINN, which stands for Autonomous Land Vehicle in a Neural Network rolled out of production in the late 80s.

Pomerleau and his colleague Todd Jochen took ALVINN from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania all the way to San Diego, California in 1995.

Check out the video below:

The only things the driver had to control were speed and breaking -- the two men dubbed their journey, "No Hands Across America."

The tech

However, let's put the technology Pomerleau used in ALVINN into perspective using modern technology:

ALVINN's operating system used 100 million floating-point-operations per second.

"Beautifully implemented, but constrained very much so by the hardware," said Oliver Cameron, leader of the open-source autonomous car project at Udacity. 

What does that mean?

That's about one-tenth of the processing power that today's Apple Watches have.

On top of that, ALVINN's CPU (Central Processing Unit) was the same size as a refrigerator and needed a 5,000-watt generator to run.

Nevertheless, by the early 1990s, Pomerleau had ALIVINN hitting speeds up to 70 miles-per-hour.

Even with the progress, they gained from neural mapping, though, it's easy to see why, back then, you couldn't really put ALVINN into your average car.

How do self-driving vehicles work?

Maps: Before a manufacturer puts a self-driving car out onto the road, they install both cameras and lidars so that the car can map the territory in "extreme detail." That point of reference then allows the car to verify the readings it's getting on its sensors. These maps allow the car to know its location down to the centimeter. 

Not only was the neural net project itself vitally important, but many people that worked on the team that put it all together also went on to head development teams of their own.

Those very same people are the ones that went on to lead projects at places like Google.

motorhome self driving rv

Image: by MemoryCatcher, via Pixabay

The Grand Challenge

Obviously, the military always had a huge impact on advancing the tech needed to get autonomous cars and RVs on the road.

No more so than when the DOD's (Department of Defense) skunkworks arm Darpa (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) reached outside military bounds and started the Grand Challenge.

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.” -- Mary Shelly

The idea behind the Darpa Grand Challenge:

By itself, the military kept running into dead-ends.

So, it reached out to development teams and challenged them to create an autonomous vehicle that would travel across 132 miles of the desert without a driver.

How do self-driving vehicles work?

Radar: Manufacturers have included radar in vehicles since the late 1990s. Radars work for autonomous vehicles by bouncing radio waves around to "see" the area. Radar is especially good at spotting large metallic objects like other vehicles. Additionally, radars are cheap to produce and things like snow, rain, and fog don't bother them at all. 

The first challenge took place on March 18, 2004.

Disaster

Here's what happened:

None of the challengers made it past the seven-mile marker and most of them crashed within sight of the starting line.

However, the challengers used what they learned in 2004 and by 2005, things started looking up.

Check out the video below:

Here's how:

Five vehicles managed to cross the finish line that year.

Leaps and bounds

Get this:

After that, the technology at the Grand Challenge grew by leaps and bounds.

By 2007, the Darpa challenge vehicles could not only stick to their trail, but they could also:

  • Follow traffic laws
  • Merge
  • Park
  • Make safe, legal U-turns.

Check out Carnegie Mellon's entry in the video below:

Remember we talked about Pomerleau's team making waves?

Well, Chris Urmson worked with Pomerleau, and he is the one that led the Carnegie Mellon team to victory in the 2007 challenge.

man rejoices in victory raises her arms in the air

Image via Giphy

Urmson later went on to work as the head engineer for a while on Google's autonomous car project.

Indeed, Urmson wasn't the only one:

Many of the participants in the Grand Challenge went on to lead self-driving car projects at other companies.

What happened next?

Along Came Google

That's right.

Google secretly launched its self-driving car project in 2009 with the goal of putting a fully autonomous car on the road by 2020.

Initially, the project started out using a fleet of Toyota Priuses and one Audi TT.

couple sitting on passenger seats is riding in a self controlled car

Image via Giphy

Google hired humans with perfect driving records to sit in the cars during testing while they cruised around Moutain View, California.

Check out the video below for a detailed explanation of how these cars work:

By 2012, Google announced it had logged over 300,000 miles without a driver and the company started testing in more complex urban environments.

Firefly

Then, in 2015, Google created its own self-driving car and named it Firefly.

As you have learned, not every car has the same abilities. So, in an attempt to categorize them, manufacturers created the following chart:

  • Level 0: the car requires a driver at all times, no automation
  • Level 1: driver assistance -- in certain conditions the car controls either steering or acceleration but not at the same time (adaptive cruise control)
  • Level 2: partial automation -- the car can steer, accelerate, and brake in certain conditions (like the Tesla) 
  • Level 3: conditional automation -- the car can handle most aspects of driving, as well as monitoring the environment. The system only needs a driver to intervene when it encounters something it cannot navigate.
  • Level 4: high automation -- the car can operate without any human input only under select conditions and specific road types of geographical areas (like the Firefly)
  • Level 5: full automation -- the car can operate on any road that a human driver could (experts predict Waymo will be the first car to go full level 5) 

The Firefly had custom sensors, no steering wheel, and you started it by pushing a button.

Check it out in the video below:

As you can see, the fact that you couldn't go faster than 25 miles-per-hour shut down that project pretty quickly.

But that's okay:

It was about that time, in 2016, that Google partnered with FCA to use the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid as the next autonomous vehicle.

Waymo

Those vans were the first-ever mass-produced vehicles in history with a fully-integrated hardware suite designed by Waymo.

And that brings us to today and what Google and Waymo are up to now.

Stay with us:

Since their inception, Google's robot cars have logged over 10 million miles on public roads, including an additional 7 billion miles using a simulator.

How do self-driving vehicles work?

IoT: IoT stands for Internet of Things. The IoT describes a system of inter-related computing devices. In an autonomous vehicle, you will find many IoT systems. For example, the sensors in a robot car seamlessly work together.

In other words:

The software in each Waymo car includes hundreds of years of driving experience.

Taxi service

In 2017, in Pheonix, Arizona Waymo put those Crysler vans to work taxing real humans who in-turn give valuable feedback on the service.

Check out the video below:

Waymo says that it plans to expand its services outside of Pheonix as soon as possible.

Additionally, the company plans to continue to learn and adapt to new technology as well as continue to test its self-driving trucks.

Other Car Companies Getting into the Game

Of course, if you think Waymo is the only company making headway, you would be very wrong.

man wiping away dirt on his newly bought self driving red car

Image via Giphy

There are actually a lot of other companies getting into the game -- some of them very successfully too.

Tesla

In 2014, Tesla released the world's first car that included an "Auto-Pilot" system which would allow you to let the car take over on the highway or in start and stop traffic.

Check out Auto-Pilot in the video below:

Unfortunately, when the technology was new, there were several accidents.

Since then, Tesla learned from the mistakes, fixed the issues, and things are running smoothly these days.

How do self-driving vehicles work?

IoT sensors: each autonomous car will have many different sensors including blind-spot monitoring, collision warning, cameras, lidar, and ultrasonic just a name a few. Each of these sensors works together so the robot car can navigate. 

When Tesla released these cars, it drove the rest of the robot car manufacturers to get on the ball.

And, boy, did they ever answer the call.

Ford and GM

Here's what's going on right now:

A subsidiary of General Motors called Cruise Automation just rolled out self-driving cars that deliver food in San Francisco using a Chevrolet Volt.

Check it out in the video below:

GM plans to expand the delivery service as well as mass-produce fleets of self-driving vehicles for human consumption eventually.

That's not all:

Ford is in the game too with the release of the Fusion sedan using self-driving technology.

Check them out in the video below:

Like the Waymo cars, Ford already rolled these out for testing in Miami, Florida and plans to have a fully autonomous car available by 2021.

Audi

The 2019 Audi A8 Sedan is the first ever production car to roll out with level 3 automation (you only need a driver when the car runs into something it doesn't recognize).

Audi calls the program "Traffic Jam Pilot."

Check it out in the video below:

Unfortunately, because of the current law in the United States, we won't see this version of the Audi A8 for a while.

Don't worry, you can still get the car, just not the included technology -- yet.

The law needs to catch up to the tech.

Uber and Lyft

Both Uber and Lyft also have autonomous car programs.

Check out Uber's car in the video below:

News flash:

Uber's test-pilot program is taking place in Pittsburg.

The company recently resumed operations after temporary shut-down because of a fatal accident.

Lyft is also operating on a small scale in Las Vegas and San Francisco.

Check out the video below:

Keep your eyes peeled for a self-driving car coming to a city near you any day.

Cars Available Now with Driver Assistance

Here's what you should know:

There are a surprising number of cars on the market today with level 2 automation:

That means they work much like Tesla.

For example:

The Cadillac CT6 Sedan includes Super Cruise and people seem to really like it.

Check it out in the video below:

Super Cruise proved to be so popular, GM plans to start including it across the rest of its models.

Mercedes Benz

How do self-driving vehicles work?

Cloud computing: all self-driving vehicles are connected to the internet. They contact the cloud for traffic data, maps, surface conditions, adjacent vehicles, and weather. The data helps the vehicle make informed decisions. 

You could also consider the Mercedes Benz.

Check it out in the video below:

Surprisingly:

Other manufacturers also offer some form of autonomous driving similar to the ones we just discussed.

overall look and speed of a self driving car

Image via Giphy

BMW, Nissan, and Volvo also offer vehicles with level 2 automation.

Which Brings Us to the Self-Driving Autonomous RV

We had to go through a bit of the history of self-driving vehicles in order to get to what really interests us: the self-driving RV. 

Imagine the following scenario:

You live in New York City and have a meeting tomorrow in D.C. The flight from NYC to D.C. is only just over and hour. However, you have to drive an hour to the airport (probably in horrible traffic). But you have to be sure you're there at least an hour early (thank you, N.S.A.). 

Then when you arrive in D.C., you have to go through the same nightmare scenario in reverse. Wait for your baggage, call an Uber or taxi, and drive an hour to your hotel. It may be less, but have you driven in D.C. lately? An hour is grossly optimistic. 

Besides the time investment, you're frazzled from the stress of air travel, your legs are cramped, and trying to work in the airport while you wait for your flight is a nightmare. 

Want to talk about expenses? You'll pay for your plane ticket, of course, but you'll also be out of pocket for meals, transportation to and fro, and your hotel.

How much time did you lose for this trip? Calculating it just one way (not the equally nightmarish return trip), you're in at least five hours and that's IF everything runs smoothly. 

The alternative

But what if you didn't have to suffer all of that? 

Imagine this scenario instead:

You roll out of bed and walk outside to your self-driving RV.

You already put a freshly laundered suit, on a hanger, in the RV last night before you went to bed. Or if you travel frequently, maybe you keep a small wardrobe in your RV at all times.

Your groceries are already in the RV, and you push a button to start the coffee pot. 

While you wait for your coffee, you open up your laptop and sit down at your desk. You hear the RV start up and you begin to go down the road. 

Somewhere along the way, you decide you could use a quick nap. After you wake up, you take a quick shower just before arriving in D.C., less than five hours later. 

As you enter the RV park, you smile, relaxed and confident. 

Yeah, you'll need to pay for an Uber or taxi to get to your meeting the next morning, but you're not out a dime more than the cost of renting a spot at the RV park. 

How Soon Will Self-Driving RVs Be Available in Your Town?

Right now, even the cars operating "driver-less" have a licensed driver behind the wheel at all times.

For now, that's about all the law will allow.

However, there's hope:

Since 2012, at least 41 states have discussed some form of legislation involving self-driving vehicles.

Because of its potential to save lives, the US government supports all research in the field of self-driving vehicles.

And that's a very good thing if you're excited to get these bad boys on the road.

old couple riding in a self driving car is waving at the people they passed by

Image via Giphy

When it comes to autonomous RVs, most experts are suggesting the year 2025 as the year that self-driving RVs become a reality and legal. 

The law is trying to keep up with the technology, but we all know how that can go.

You can find a full guide to all the current legislation at the National Conference of State Legislature's site.

Your Options in a Self-Driving RV

Can you get a self-driving RV now? Not exactly...

But check this out:

There ARE prototypes that are ready and just waiting for the laws that will allow driver-less technology. 

The Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025

In 2014, Mercedes-Benz created a prototype self-driving RV called the Future Truck 2025. They presented this beauty at the International Motor Show in Hanover, Germany. 

During the show, the Future Truck 2025 operated completely in driver-less mode, but had a person in the driver's seat. 

During the three-mile ride on the A14 motorway, going at autobahn speed, the driver never touched the steering wheel.

In fact:

The driver moved his seat completely away from the steering wheel and took notes. 

Mercedez plans to bring this RV to the market by 2025. They're mostly just waiting for the laws to catch up. 

Newmar and Entegra

In 2017, Spartan Motors introduced the groundbreaking Advanced Protection System (APS) technology. This technology allows RVs to successfully avoid collisions without driver interference. 

While not exactly a driver-less RV, it's definitely a step towards that. 

Watch this demo ride-along in the collision mitigation equipped 45-foot motor-home.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Keep this in mind:

While there are many good sides to autonomous vehicles, of course, there's always negative impacts to consider as well.

Autonomous vehicles have been involved in several crashes -- at least one of them resulted in a death.

Pros

  • A huge reduction in accidents since over 80 percent of them are human error
  • Computers never become distracted
  • Estimated healthcare savings of $9.2 million
  • People will gain more time to accomplish tasks
  • Because the vehicles communicate, congestions could be a thing of the past
  • Disabled people will find using public transportation much easier
  • Self-driving vehicles could provide rides for people that live in places with poor public transportation
  • A decrease in drunk driving accidents
  • A potential to save millions of dollars on infrastructure projects like railroads
  • The DMV would be less crowded
  • You won't have to worry about grandma anymore

Cons

  • Automated trucks will truck drivers out of work
  • Other transportation jobs will be at risk -- bus drivers and taxi drivers
  • The cost of the new technology could be out of reach for average people
  • Security concerns and hackers
  • Concern about the computer collecting personal data
  • Drivers might become out of practice causing concern in case of malfunction
  • The law needs to catch up
  • Many people worry the computer will malfunction
  • It remains unclear how well self-driving vehicles can handle different hazards and slight variations in state law
  • GPS systems can be unreliable
  • The gasoline industry will suffer as it's likely that the autonomous vehicles will be electric
  • It's going to take a long time to get everything switched over

On the other hand, every study shows that once everyone uses autonomous vehicles, the number of accidents will plummet.

Check out the video below:

However, as you can imagine, while we are certainly going to see more and more self-driving vehicles on the road -- to transition all the way is going to take quite some time.

Coming to a Town near You

And there you have it, folks:

It's time to get excited because if you haven't already, you're going to see an RV driving itself any day now.

Who knows? It may even be you enjoying your trip to D.C. (or wherever). 

One thing is for sure, the technology isn't slowing down and neither are the people putting it on the market.

Featured image: by kleinesonne_de, via Pixabay

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