Five Ways Your Car Can Drive Itself, Today
Would you trust your car to steer itself clear of a collision or decide when to brake? The technology to do this is already available and in some cars. But will it lead to an automated driving experience? Quite possibly, yes.
While the technology is still in development, the building blocks for an automated driving experience are here now, such as adaptive or smart cruise control that measures the distance between cars, like this one from Volvo.
In the not-so-distant future, your morning commute might be a very different experience. While you'll most likely still be lined up bumper-to-bumper on the highway, you won't be stuck in traffic per se, banging your head on your car's steering wheel because the motorist in front of you won't move. Instead, you will be doing something called "platooning," a high-tech, automated version of follow the leader.
When you enter the roadway, your car will fall in line behind a drone vehicle that is in constant communication with roadway infrastructure, collecting data on road conditions, traffic updates and more. That drone will act just like the front car of a commuter train in that it will communicate with and direct your car safely to its "exit" or "stop" without any input from you. With your car essentially on autopilot, you can, say, catch up on work, read the paper or watch the "Today Show," whatever you want, without any worry of colliding with another vehicle. Upon reaching your exit, your vehicle will detach from the pack and you will pilot it to your final destination.
Much of the technology needed to do this kind of automated driving is still in development. However, we are closer to an automated George Jetson-esque driving experience than you might think. Cars that brake and steer clear of accidents and pedestrians without any help from their drivers are here now.
Talking Cars and Roadways
The most advanced of these so-called collision-avoidance technologies use sensors, cameras and transmitters in cars to "talk" to each other, with the goal of reducing collisions and traffic congestion. For example, if you're about to change lanes and a car enters your blind spot, your vehicle would know it's there and warn you. It could even take evasive action by steering or braking if a collision seems imminent.
Centralized data centers that monitor and control traffic lights can use similar technology to warn vehicles of accidents, road congestion or a speeding car that's about to run a red light. Pilot programs that use this so-called vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology are already running, but it will be years before they go mainstream due to their cost and complexity, experts say.
For this and other reasons, public safety concerns likely won't be the chief impetus for the rise of networked cars and roadways, says Thomas Broberg, Volvo Cars' senior technical adviser for safety. He thinks a consumer application that adds convenience, such as platooning, is more likely to spur widespread adoption of automated driving technology.
So-called adaptive or intelligent cruise-control systems now being offered on luxury vehicles are a definite step toward automated driving as envisioned in the platooning scenario. These high-tech systems employ radar or lidar — which is like radar, but uses lasers — to match the speed of a vehicle directly ahead and maintain a preset distance from it. If the cruise control is set to 65 mph and the car in front slows to 50 mph, then so does your car.
The latest intelligent cruise control offered by Infiniti will slow the vehicle all the way to a stop and close the distance to the car ahead. Then, as long as you're not stationary for more than two seconds, the vehicle will start to move again when the car in front does. "That allows the driver to take some of that workload off of constantly going from brake to gas," says Bob Yakushi, director of product safety for Nissan/Infiniti.
Most luxury automakers offer intelligent cruise control, but not all of them can slow a vehicle to a stop as Infiniti's system can. What they all have in common is a hefty price tag — usually in the $2,000 range, or more if bundled with other gadgets such as navigation systems and back-up cameras. It could be at least a few years before intelligent cruise control starts appearing in more affordable vehicles.
Audi is experimenting with extending the range of intelligent cruise-control systems using Wi-Fi signals. "Radar looks at a certain limited range ahead," says Chuhee Lee, head of Audi's connected vehicles group. "But with Wi-Fi and real-time traffic data, you can look three kilometers ahead of a vehicle." This can help drivers better avoid traffic jams, icy roads and other adverse road conditions.
These so-called networked vehicles can also guide eco-conscious drivers to higher moral ground by helping reduce fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. By talking to each other and roadway data centers, as well as taking into account road surface conditions, temperature and the braking and acceleration required, cars can calculate routes and optimize engine output to burn the least amount of fuel. This is the focus of an Audi research project called Environmentally Friendly Navigation being conducted with the University of California at Berkeley and the University of California at Riverside.
A similar test by Nissan found that advanced guidance technology helped reduce travel time over a specific route in Los Angeles by 23 percent while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent. The potential for this technology is staggering.
Audi is experimenting with extending the range of intelligent cruise-control systems using Wi-Fi signals, so drivers can look three kilometers ahead of a vehicle to help them better avoid traffic jams, icy roads and other adverse road conditions.
Radar and lidar systems used for intelligent cruise control keep a lookout for impending collisions as well, even when the cruise control isn't engaged.
Like an extra set of eyes, sensors constantly scan the road ahead and warn the driver if a collision with a slower-moving or stationary object seems likely. The warning signals for an impending impact vary by manufacturer: The Volvo XC60 beeps loudly and flashes red lights in the dashboard; the Infiniti EX35 will beep and push back on the accelerator.
If the driver doesn't take action after the warnings, the Infiniti and Volvo systems will apply the brakes.
Other things also happen if the system detects an imminent crash: Front seats move into an optimal position for impact protection; the seat belts tense up; and, if the driver applies the brakes but not to their maximum potential, the system adds braking force, too.
A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that forward collision warning/avoidance technology has the potential to prevent or mitigate up to 2.3 million police-reported crashes each year, which amounts to 38 percent of all reported vehicle-on-vehicle mishaps.
Turning on a Dime
Some cars not only stop for you, they also steer themselves. Infiniti offers a system that uses cameras in the side mirrors to determine whether the vehicle is wandering over the lane markers. If the turn signal isn't activated and the vehicle starts to cross the line, lights in the mirrors flash and a beep goes off.
If the driver doesn't react to the warnings and the vehicle continues to move into another lane, the system will apply braking force to one of the wheels and redirect the vehicle back into the lane.
The IIHS found that lane-departure warning/prevention systems could potentially mitigate up to 483,000 crashes per year — 10,345 of which are fatal.
Ford's 2010 Escape uses different technology to help keep it on course. The automaker's latest electric power-steering system applies sensors and software to detect whether a driver has to maintain constant effort on the steering wheel to keep the vehicle in a straight line, such as on roads that are crowned for water drainage or in a steady crosswind.
If such effort is detected, the system automatically compensates so the driver doesn't have to. The company plans to develop software for its electric power-steering system that will also prevent lane departures.
The Balance Between Driver and Machine
As helpful as collision-avoidance and other automated driving technology is, machines are still machines — they work only within limits and sometimes don't work at all. For instance, the laser sensors in Volvo's City Safety system embedded at the top of the windshield can scan only up to 13 feet ahead of the vehicle, and they can be limited by fog, snow and heavy rain.
How well humans and machines interface is another point of debate. On the one hand, every manufacturer touts the importance of keeping the driver in control and not creating distractions with the advanced warning systems. "What's paramount is that you don't take over control from the driver unless it's absolutely necessary, and then you do it very carefully," says Brian Hildebrand, director of systems and technology for Continental AG, which supplies technology for crash-avoidance systems.
Still, every engineer we talked to agreed that the proliferation of these automated systems is inevitable. "We think the next frontier that will provide some significant safety benefit would be in the area of crash avoidance," says Rae Tyson, a spokesperson for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The Trickle Down
Though these collision-avoidance systems are primarily found in luxury vehicles, they will eventually become standard on every vehicle. "It will become affordable as you have the base building blocks in place," says Ali Jammoul, Ford's chief engineer for chassis and steering systems.
One such building block is a new electric steering system first employed on the Ford Escape to reduce fuel consumption by up to 5 percent. By adding new software programming, the mechanism is being used for a "self-guided" parallel-parking feature on the new Lincoln MKT. "The cost to add these features will shrink more and more as you go forward, because it becomes a matter of just updating software to add new functionality," Jammoul says.
So, when will cars drive themselves? Stay tuned. It might be sooner than you think.
Matthew de Paula wanted to be an automotive journalist ever since reading his first car magazine in grade school. After a brief stint writing about finance, he helped launch ForbesAutos.com and became the site's editor in 2006. Matthew now freelances for various outlets.
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Do we really need to dumb society down even further by taking away the ability to drive on instinct. Its bad enough the standard shift transmission is considered obsolete by todays standards. The problem is too many people are distracted while driving. So the solution is to eliminate driving? I think not. Quit being lazy and pay attention to the road! This idea will only work if every car is like this. Not happening as long as i'm around!