But you might not even notice, turns out.

The little details behind making autonomous vehicles more and more real will require the auto industry to work together. Unsurprisingly, it isn't always smooth sailing. I mean, how often do you think car companies want to share their proprietary technology with each other? It's been a point of contention in the history of the industry, and it turns out that self-driving cars aren't changing this particular paradigm. 

The good news is that some coordination is happening. Tamara Meehan Russell, 3M's global marketing manager for Intelligent Transportation, recently told Motor1 that governments and companies like 3M can be useful middlemen as the process moves forward.

"[The OEMs] all want to be first, with the first vehicle out there that has the best technology," she said. "So you get them all in a room together and say, okay, how can we help solve your problems? And they get very quiet. And they won't talk about what they call their 'edge cases.' So you need outside players, especially when it comes to designing and building out the infrastructure. Since 3M engineers can talk to the automakers confidentially, it can then say in public what the general problems are, without singling out any one company."

There has to be some sort of discussion between the automakers today because this is when self-driving communication standards are being developed.

"Primarily, the needs are, how do we standardize something for an industry that is not standardized today," Russell said. "Because they're all doing their own thing and not talking about what their problems are. The idea is, we can have data that will get aggregated. OEMs don't want their specific results reported out, even to the DOT, because they're a public entity. So we have to keep that confidential. But we will aggregate it and figure out how we can get things out."

More on self-driving cars:

The Department of Transportation the Russell is talking about is the one from Michigan. As 3M announced last year, the company is working with the Michigan DOT on a brand-agnostic project to test self-driving vehicles on a 3.3-mile section of I-75. The current phase is a construction zone that will be active through November 2017. Many automakers will be testing their vehicles there, in real-world conditions, and 3M's contribution to the research project is to try and get things standardized – the exact color, reflectivity, contrast, and width of pavement markings, for example. Today, there is no national standard for those, Russell said, so if an automaker is using cameras to "read" the road, it may have to deal with variations from state to state. "That being said, this autonomous vehicle thing has kind of pushed the industry – road owners and the suppliers for their materials – to take what has been talked about for a number of years and actually push forward with developing a national standard."

The official request for partners (PDF) describes the technologies only in vague terms:

  • Traffic Signs – provide technology on the construction signs that will communicate with the vehicles in a variety of scenarios such as detour routes, advance signing, entering the work zone and local roadways.
  • Temporary Traffic Control Work Zones
    Traffic Devices – provide technology on the traffic barrels/Drums/Cones that will communicate with the vehicles in taper areas and local roadways.
    Barrier Wall – provide technology in the work zone that will communicate with the vehicles for the location of the barrier wall.
  • Pavement Markings – provide technology in work zone that will communicate with the vehicles in taper areas, ramps, and local roadways

Russell gave Motor1 a few more details, saying that one of 3M's ideas is "skunk tape," a high-contrast, black and white tape that has a defined edge for an AI car's cameras to see. 3M has ideas for special road signs for autonomous vehicles, too, signs that would look like a normal road sign to humans but have embedded information in them (in the infrared spectrum, perhaps) that is only visible to the sensors on the vehicle or perhaps only sensed via the sensors on the vehicle.

U of Michigan's MCity Autonomous Car Proving Grounds Opening to the Public

3M is also an affiliate member of the MCity project at the University of Michigan and Russell said 3M is working outside of Michigan as well. "California is equally important as Michigan in this whole movement," she said. Globally, Russell said the difficulty making autonomous cars work in the U.S. and Europe are very similar, but China has an advantage because so many new roads are being built right now. "They have a little more flexibility to introduce new things right out of the gate," she said. "They don't have to update a road, they have to just build it as it comes." Japan, on the other hand, has an advantage in the way its networks make car communication possible.

'Each [country] is different," she said. "This trend is so global in the automotive space so everybody kind of gets educated together as standards get written together. Automotive companies are already dealing with many variables in the environment, and different country requirements can become a whole different headache."

So, there is a growing sense of standardization amid all of the somewhat-hidden communication. Not all automakers are working at the same pace, though, Russell said, citing Tesla. "I think it's great to have someone who has a different perspective," she said. "They do things very differently, very fast. They bring something that's for the better for the industry, which is kind of a different perspective on how you approach a problem. Doesn't mean their problems are any different though. I can tell you that."

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