They may not realize it, but drivers of many of the latest passenger cars are experiencing features that, with only some software additions, can provide autonomous driving, at least in select circumstances.
In bringing about this change in the driving experience, auto makers are relying on the paradigm of technology introduction, first in luxury brands, and orderly expansion of capabilities along with down-market availability as costs fall. A new feature may also be seen as desirable, further boosting adoption.
Such driver-assist systems are first introduced to help drivers and make tasks less stressful, says Infiniti's Kyle Bazemore, senior communications manager. But they are also “building blocks” for future autonomous driving, he says.
For instance, almost all drivers are familiar with cruise control. By marrying that function with forward-looking radar, engineers created "intelligent" cruise control which maintains a safe distance to a vehicle ahead when that vehicle slows down. Some systems require driver intervention to execute a full stop while still others stop a car without driver involvement.
Infiniti has incorporated forward-looking radar into its predictive forward-collision warning system, says Bazemore. In this arrangement, a phased array radar with antennas in the vehicle's front fascia uses beam shaping to monitor the vehicle ahead of the one immediately in front of a car. The beam shaping detects sudden deceleration before the intermediate car's driver reacts. A warning is given to the driver to anticipate this slowing and allow him or her to brake. Infiniti's technology even recognizes if the beam is blocked, say, by a truck and directs the beam beneath the large vehicle.
In a second development, original equipment manufacturers have introduced lane departure warning technology. High dynamic range cameras detect road markings or pavement edges and process these data points to alert drivers if they are drifting into an adjacent lane or onto the road shoulder. Recently, Infiniti and other manufacturers have taken data from these systems to provide steering and braking inputs to help drivers recover from impending lane departures.
Next-generation systems will evolve from lane-keeping assist functions to include the ability to turn a vehicle back into a lane without driver input, says Jeremy Carlson, senior analyst for advanced driver assistance systems at IHS Automotive. He focuses on where technology development and its integration is leading the auto industry and the driving experience.
"Such systems will allow the driver to override its functions (for an emergency lane change without a turn signal) or the system logic may even determine if the driver is actively controlling and forego intervention," he says.
A next step would be networking discrete intelligent cruise control and lane-keeping functions into a larger system, says Carlson. This is sometimes called highway piloting or Super Cruise (by General Motors) for freeway driving and anticipates operating a vehicle without feet on the pedals or hands on the wheel. Carlson says such systems exist in many European brands that offer automated driving in low-speed, stop-and-go situations.
Once such autonomous in-lane cruising is in place and accepted, the opportunity then may arise to add blind-spot monitoring. A driver can find vehicles whizzing past because he or she did not realize the car ahead had slowed gradually, Carlson says. Blind-spot sensor integration could permit the driver to signal for a turn into the passing lane. The maneuver itself would be automatically executed once a slot in the traffic stream is safely available.
Overshadowing such technology evolution is whether a new feature or capability will be accepted by drivers, even if it is intended to reduce driving stress or enhance safety. System development and refinement needs to advance to ensure that the driver does not feel "uneasy," Carlson says.
In a journalist's driving experience with the Infiniti Q50, the car's assist function was found to gently nudge the car back from drifting out of lane, but not provide a follow-up correction when the other side of the lane was reached. In an Audi A6, the journalist found a more aggressive correction, with a constant drift to the lane edge. This resulted in a series of repeated "punches" back into the lane, which meant for a rocking, back-and-forth ride that continued until the system disengaged when the driver's hands on the wheel were not detected.
Automated functions should behave like the driver and not abnormally, Carlson says, otherwise drivers may be unwilling to accept them. Systems also should not "overpower drivers or take them out of the equation for control," he says.
Additional driver assistance systems can aid these features’ effectiveness, including adaptive lighting (directional and beam shaping), night vision (obstacle detection) and traffic sign interpretation (such as current and local speed limits), which could be integrated into an overall system.
Carlson says that such autonomous functionality is not just "sensors and software." Instead, none of the automation would be possible without the underlying systems to control such as electric power steering, automatic transmissions with up to nine speeds and engines with adjustable mapping, valve timing and so on.
However, there is more than technology involved in figuring out where automated systems might lead. When asked about the insurance, liability and legal implications of autonomous driving, Carlson says, "We have time to figure that out."
Similar concerns were raised at a technology conference sponsored by the New England Motor Press Association on Engineering Safer Drivers held earlier in 2014 at MIT. After many technology-based developments were discussed, Bryan Reimer, leader of a team at MIT's AgeLab--which is studying how drivers respond to an increasingly complex operating environment--gave a warning. Even before a fully self-driving car is realized, he said, a car functioning in an autonomous mode likely will be involved in the death of an occupant or pedestrian.
As to what could or could not be done after such an event, he said, "all bets are off."