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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Instead of trying to design fully automated vehicles from scratch, the way forward might be to adapt limited technologies that have already proven themselves in specific settings, and gradually add capability.

Why it matters: Adapting new technology from successful use-cases where safety is paramount, like in mining, could assuage public concerns about AVs, and accelerate AV development and production.

How it works: AV development and production could be rooted in successful deployment in constrained environments and then scaled up from there.

  • For example, AVs are already used in limited defense applications, in mines, and in factories.
  • Next they could be scaled up for closed circuits in retirement community and long haul trucking circuits.
  • Eventually they could be highway-ready, and finally, there could be self-driving passenger vehicles suitable for all roads.

What's happening: Some of the first milestones of autonomy have already been achieved, like geo-fenced, low-speed autonomous driving, automatic emergency braking, and repetitive tasks in mining.

  • In the heavy equipment industries, such as mining and construction, it's common to use AVs for repetitive tasks like moving material from one destination to another.
  • Autonomous drones used to monitor construction projects, handle land surveys, and watch over resource management have crossover applications in business services such as delivery, agriculture, and security.
  • May mobility is currently looking at use cases and testing in controlled environments, like a shuttle service in Rhode Island.

Flashback: Public expectations for passenger-ready, fully autonomous vehicles don't have a strong historical analogy.

  • While smartphones come with fewer safety concerns, they followed a common pattern. The first smartphones did enough advanced tasks well enough to gain popularity. Then, as updates to software and hardware improved performance, gradually became "the hub of everything [people] do online."

The bottom line: The best way to ensure that autonomous vehicle technology is passenger-ready before it goes into production may be to continue improving incrementally.

Bibhrajit Halder is the CEO of SafeAI, an AV technology startup focused on industrial AVs. He is also a member of GLG, a platform connecting businesses with industry experts.

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