Image: The concept Audi driverless car created for the movie I, Robot.
Self-driving cars get all the press. But there are lots of autonomous systems navigating the physical world, and more to come.
"The smart machine era will be the most disruptive in the history of IT," David Cearley, vice president & Gartner Fellow, declared recently. One in three jobs will be converted to software, robots, and smart machines by 2025, Gartner predicts.
Driving this phenomenon are improvements in hardware and software, including a profusion of fast and affordable sensors, wireless networks including short-range networks for machine-to-machine communications, GPS and other positioning technologies, machine vision, and machine learning.
Two important software platforms for autonomous, moving systems are Continuous Activity Scheduling Planning Execution and Re-planning (CASPER) and Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing (CARACaS), both from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Tying all this together for consumer systems -- NASA already has its Mars rover program -- will require huge amounts of engineering and testing. And there remain valid questions about autonomous systems and public safety.
Plus, as is usually the case, marketplace adoption for these systems might happen more slowly than advocates predict.
Take driverless cars. Based on the history of vehicle technologies, fully-autonomous vehicles might be available for sale and legal to drive on public roads by 2020, but they'll undoubtedly be costly and so represent a small fraction of vehicle sales.
By the 2040s, "autonomous vehicles will represent approximately 50% of vehicle sales, 30% of vehicles, and 40% of all vehicle travel," the Victoria Transport Policy Institute forecasted last year.
In the meantime, plenty of organizations are charting how autonomous cars will make their way out of R&D and onto the nation’s roads and highways. Last May, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration produced a policy concerning vehicle automation, including its plans for research on related safety issues and recommendations for states related to the testing, licensing, and regulation of autonomous vehicles.
The NHTSA has come up with four levels of vehicle automation:
Level 1: Automation of specific control functions. These include cruise control, lane guidance, and automated parallel parking. Drivers are fully engaged and responsible for overall vehicle control, with hands on the steering wheel and foot on the pedal at all times.
Level 2: Combined function automation. This involves automating multiple and integrated control functions, such as adaptive cruise control with lane centering. Drivers are responsible for monitoring the roadway and are expected to be available for control at all times, but under certain conditions can take their hands off the steering wheel and foot off the pedal.
Level 3: Limited self-driving automation. Drivers can cede all safety-critical functions under certain conditions and rely on the vehicle to monitor for changes in those conditions that will require transition back to driver control. Drivers are not expected to constantly monitor the roadway.
Level 4: Full self-driving automation. Vehicles can perform all driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip, and so may operate with occupants who cannot drive and without human occupants.
Of course, driverless cars aren't the only automated systems on the horizon, or even necessarily the most interesting. Click through our slideshow to see what other automated wonders are already here or coming soon.
Which of these systems are you most eager to see rolling, walking, or flying around the world? Let us know in the comments below.Ellis Booker has held senior editorial posts at a number of A-list IT publications, including UBM's InternetWeek, Mecklermedia's Web Week, and IDG's Computerworld. At Computerworld, he led Internet and electronic commerce coverage in the early days of the web and was ... View Full Bio