Back to the Future – Flying Car Engineering …The Future is now – Self Driving Cars

Do you know that the field of autonomous vehicles will grow by 42% within the next four years? Autonomous systems are ought to shortly become central and crucial to human life – they already replace humans in a wide variety of tasks. Such systems, among others, include vehicles of all kinds, traffic management systems, industrial and medical robots, and different kinds of manufacturing facilities. Will they be able to replace humans even more? What can we expect?

Are flying and autonomous vehicles our future?

Recent years have been extremely dynamic for transportation development. The infrastructure has been suffering from overuse and extreme traffic congestion and roadway disrepair. As the infrastructure expansion policy might not be an option in many countries, a need for innovative and novel solutions occurred. And some of such innovations have already been launched – autonomous motor vehicles or drone technologies (e.g. for package deliveries and surveillance). Flying car technology is now considered to be a long-term solution that, if handled properly, can be a safe and fully sustainable option. One of the recent studies shows that by 2034 autonomous vehicles will make up over 10% of all vehicles being bought and sold.

Can we expect all cars to be self-driving soon?

Let’s be honest – all new cars are already computer-controlled to some degree. Almost all the diagnostics are now based on a computer system that links to various microchips and sensors. Computer control and self-driving features will be the next level of automation. A costly one, that’s for sure, but still just another step ahead. Such computer systems will just be much more sophisticated.

What are autonomous systems?

Briefly speaking, autonomous systems incorporate artificial intelligence into the management and control of complex structures. They may include human operators, but most often they are operated independently of other control systems. Some definitions say that autonomous systems are the big networks that make up the Internet – it means that they are believed to be a large network that has a unified routing policy. Typically, such a system is operated by a single large organization, a large enterprise technology company or a government agency.

How are autonomous systems beneficial?

The potential of autonomous systems is extreme. Such systems can replace humans in executing a wide range of activities. They are already broadly prevalent in some industries and this trend will continue to rise in the years to come. Experts say that next-generation autonomous systems will be even able to operate under unpredictable conditions. Therefore engineers work hard to assure customers that a particular system will function correctly and safely, also in high-risk situations, never even thought about before. Some best practices for autonomous systems have already been developed.

  1. The systems should always learn from human experts. This is a must. They can also partner with humans with decision making. They should empower operators to make better decisions with AI-powered support.
  2. The system can apply to a single component or a machine. It is supposed to direct action like a traditional control system.
  3. The system should learn and apply best practices and safety policies.
  4. Its major goal is to unlock efficiencies and optimize operations beyond human potential.

Does autonomous mean the same as automated?

Even though the terms are used interchangeably, they shouldn’t be. While they share similar-sounding names, they operate in different ways. They are also different in how they enable themselves in an industrial setting. The table below shows the main difference between autonomous and automated systems.

Autonomous systems vs Automated systems:

Autonomous systemsAutomated systems
The system is able to react to changing conditions. It can adapt operations to maintain accuracy and efficiency. The system learns from human experts and practices before it responds to real-world scenarios.The system manages how a machine performs various tasks. It controls repetitive tasks, however, when environmental conditions change, the automated system might not work effectively.

Autonomous systems – examples

There are many examples of existing and working autonomous systems. First of all, they are widely used in navigation (like automatic transport – self-driving cars – and movement in real-world environments – robot vacuum cleaners). They are also used in human interaction – many systems can accept verbal commands. There are autonomous decision-making devices like software for stock trading or many intelligent things like infrastructure, buildings, and facilitates that automatically respond to conditions. These are e.g. windows that optimize for better energy efficiency etc.

Flying cars and flying transportation systems (FCTS)

Along with the fast increase of population, the level of urbanization in developing and developed European and Asian countries has been also rocketing. As in other fields of real-world life, a need for innovation is raised. It turned out that ground transportation wasn’t enough to meet the needs of today’s world. Flying cars and flying transportation systems had to be eventually introduced to the public. For geeks, autonomous and flying cars are bright new dawn. Those are vehicles (that don’t even look like a regular car in most cases) equipped with lift and propulsion to fly, the controls to manage, and wheels and suspension to handle city streets. Less a car and more a drone, they look like a small plane or a helicopter.

Autonomous and flying cars do sound exciting but… will they be fully safe?

Many people wonder if we can trust that autonomous and flying cars could take us from A to B safely. Surveys show that, at the moment, most people don’t trust flying cars – there have already been some cases where autonomous vehicles have seriously injured or even killed other road users. They didn’t act as predicted in certain traffic scenarios. However, much effort is currently put into autonomous systems development. Flying cars are more and more advanced and it’s a matter of time when they will be safe and predictable, while fully adjusting to the changing environment. Autonomous vehicles will only be legal to operate on the roads where appropriate infrastructure is in place so that the car knows what to do in different situations. If autonomous and flying cars become standard, they will need to have a near-flawless safety record. And this covers both mechanical integrity and safe operations. For engineers, mechanical integrity sounds easier to accomplish. On the other hand, the operations could pose unique challenges.

Autonomous and flying cars – examples

Many IT-market giants have been recently working on autonomous vehicles. For example, Uber is now working with Elevate Network to launch fleets of small, electric VTOL aircraft. Another example is Slovakian Aeromobil – the company working towards genuine proof of concept in the hybrid car-plane segment. Pal-V Liberty from Dutch company Pal-V developed the Pioneer flying car edition (an Italian-design hybrid of a car and a helicopter) and is now securing orders for a limited production of 90 vehicles. The current delivery schedule is 2021 for EU countries. There is also the Vahana – a fully electric four-seater designed by the Vahana and CityAirbus – to be launched in 2023.

Engineering opportunities in autonomous and flying vehicles discipline

As autonomous and flying vehicles may turn out to be a real breakthrough, there is a great focus on training future Autonomous Systems Engineers. However, most innovative tech companies admit that there is a high shortage of engineers in flying cars and self-driving areas. An Autonomous System Engineer might soon be one of the most desired positions. You can pursue a career in various production and service industries, e.g. as an AI developer, systems engineer, IT consultant, etc. The MSc in Autonomous Systems will leave you with deep knowledge in analysis, optimization, design, modeling, and implementation from a scientific and innovative engineering perspective.

Global industry leaders

There are numerous autonomous vehicle organizations as autonomous systems are now one of the hottest topics in the industry. However, some leaders steer the movement. They have been making significant advances in the driverless car market. They have been focused on IoT technology, making driverless cars more and more intelligent. Who are these leaders?

General Motors (GM) Cruise

The company manufactures advanced self-driving cars and offers driverless taxi service. GM Cruise mainly excels in machine learning techniques, IoT sensors, and cloud-based tools – for example, they developed the system of gathering data about surrounding so that the machine can make intelligent decisions. The company was invested by SoftBank, Honda, GM, and T. Rowe Price Associates. They now have the second-largest number of vehicles in testing. Unlike most companies developing autonomous systems, G Cruise is deeply integrated with the world’s largest automakers which is a great asset.

Google’s spinoff – Waymo

Their technology is extremely powerful and each sensor complements the others. What is more, Waymo’s fleet is much larger than any other company’s. They began developing their hardware and sensors in-house in 2011. 10 years ago they realized that, back then, nothing could have provided the functionality that could enable level-four vehicles and fully driverless cars. They decided to create such a solution themselves.

BMW

BMW is in high profile collaboration with Intel and Mobileye to establish industry standards for autonomous systems. Senior Vice President for Autonomous Driving, Elmar Frickenstein, said that BMW should have fully autonomous cars available in 2021.

Daimler – Mercedes

Daimler has already built prototypes and Ola Källenius, Chairman of the Board at Daimler, has announced self-driving cars to be launched between 2020 and 2025. 

Tesla

Since 2016, Tesla is already equipped with a number of self-driving hardware. That mainly includes 360-degree visibility surround cameras, or radar with enhanced processing to see through heavy rain, dust, fog and even the car ahead. T

Tesla has been offering its Full Self-Driving (FSD) Beta software to a limited group of Tesla vehicle owners to test an early version of the autonomous driving system. However the autonomous driving system still needs to be monitored by a driver at all times, Tesla has yet to specify a date to roll out a fully autonomous system.

Argo AI

Unlike other companies, this company isn’t striving to develop a car or operate a service. Instead, they work on self-driving system development. They were able to put the self-driving system at a level of maturity far beyond what other companies did. They are partially funded by Ford Motors.

Uber

In 2019, the third generation of its self-driving car has been announced. Heavily equipped in multiple backup systems to improve safety, with an additional $1 billion in investments from Toyota, Softbank’s Vision Fund, and Denso. Uber has also purchased 600 acres of land near Pittsburgh, which is planned to be used to build a new test track for self-driving vehicles. The new track is the latest expansion of Uber’s self-driving-car ambitions and will employ about 200 people.

How much can engineers earn in the autonomous and flying car industry?

According to the latest data, a Self-driving Car Engineer makes around $240,000 a year. Even the lowest earners are making higher than $150,000 and the top 25th percentile makes over $350,000. Why do they earn so much? The answer is simple – this position is becoming to be the most desired one that needs highly skilled computer science professionals. The more, there are not a lot of them currently meeting the specific requirements to work in this fast-growing development sector.

What skills are needed to become a successful engineer in autonomous systems?

Autonomous systems combine several areas: decision making, motion planning, perception, etc. However, what skills are needed to achieve success? Technical knowledge is a must. Programming skills are just a start. Code is absolutely vital for someone working on an autonomous vehicle. Even if you are not directly involved with the software, you need to have a complete understanding of how the whole system works. Especially the following languages are of paramount significance: Python, C++ and Linux. Robotics and electrical engineering are also important. Self-driving vehicles are robots, after all. And robots require some specific skills to work on. Same with machine learning and AI – you will work through algorithms that will be constantly refined and updated which is often done through machine learning. You also need to be fluent in visualization tools, frameworks and communication protocols. To become a successful engineer, you need a mix of technical and soft skills. What are the soft skills then? You must be willing to learn and patient, that’s for sure. Also, a systematic and analytical approach and problem-solving mentality are appreciated.

A good example of comprehensive skills required in this field are Udacity Nanodegrees. Among the other e-Learning platforms, they have unique programs in their portfolio related to Autonomous Systems focused on Self Driving and Flying Cars! – focused on Job Ready Practical Skills. These Nanodegrees are made in collaboration with BMW, Mercedes-Benz, McLaren, or Uber so that it gives additional know-how with practical knowledge from leading industry experts.

All Nanodegree programs include:

  • Real-world projects from industry experts supported with review and feedback from experienced reviewers
  • Technical mentor support
  • Professional career services helping in applying for your dream job
  • Student community
  • Flexible learning program

There is currently a Financial Support offered by Udacity! You can start with:

With the background knowledge, you can enrol to more advanced Nanodegrees:

  • Become a Self-Driving Car Engineer created in partnership with Mercedes-Benz, Uber, Nvidia, and McLaren. This course is also highly recommended by Mercedes-Benz for those who’d like to be a part of their Autonomous Systems growing team

Conclusion     

Flying cars, autonomous systems, AI, and robotics represent key areas of scientific and engineering endeavors now and in the future. They are of great importance and immense societal impact as they already affect all areas of society – transport, manufacturing, and medicine.

There is obviously a visible booming in Self-driving car technology and this is just the beginning. There are more and more startups realizing the potential of these new technologies and we can expect that the trend will continue with a huge need for professionals in this field, reported by Boston Global Consulting – 100,000 jobs for self-driving car engineers will come up by 2025. Not surprised, if according to Interested Engineering, affordable flying cars may be a reality in a decade!

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