If cars are going to drive themselves someday, they’ll need to master the art of talking to each other and to their environment. Based on the technologies on display at this week’s Intelligent Transportation Systems World Congress in Detroit, we’re getting tantalizingly close to that Jetsons era. But let’s not get carried away; the industry still has a lot of work to do before fully autonomous cars are ready.
Honda Motor , for instance, took me for a ride in its not-quite-driverless car, which is a lot like Google GOOGL -0.49%’s high-profile autonomous vehicle, loaded with sensors, cameras and radar systems and an expensive, spinning laser sensor bolted to the roof. When I rode in the Google car last year, the engineer maneuvered the vehicle onto a straight section of highway, then pushed a button and let the car take over. When it was time to change lanes and exit the freeway, he took control again. (Since then, Google says it is focusing on autonomous driving on city streets, a far more complex task.)
So I was impressed by Honda’s Acura RLX, which not only entered highway traffic by itself, but navigated a busy interchange, too, exiting one freeway and entering another, following directions from the car’s navigation system. But I took note of the fact that the Japanese engineer in the driver’s seat kept his hands about an inch off the wheel during the entire demo, and when traffic ahead suddenly slowed, he didn’t wait for the automatic braking feature to kick in. He applied the brakes himself and grabbed the wheel. “Prototype,” he said several times with a chuckle. The software, a Honda spokesman explained, hadn’t yet caught up with the changing conditions. Clearly, a work in progress.
In two years, General Motors GM -0.77% says it will introduce a new 2017 Cadillac that can drive itself — at least on dedicated highways where lanes are clearly marked. It will combine existing driver assistance technologies – adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist, for instance — into one integrated system. Drivers still have to remain engaged and focused.
Delphi is helping GM and other carmakers on that score. The big automotive supplier demonstrated a system it is developing that uses cameras to assess how well the driver is paying attention and sensors to evaluate driving conditions are at any given moment. Algorithms then decide whether to issue a warning — a series of flashing lights or beeps, for instance, or even a verbal scolding to use voice commands instead. On a rural highway, with low traffic, the system might not care that you’re glancing at the scenery. But when traffic gets dicey, you might get a warning any time your eyes are momentarily diverted.
The key to all these systems is Big Data — the mounds of information flowing in and out of your vehicle from intelligent transportation systems, otherwise known as vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-infrastructure technology. The U.S. Department of Transportation has been piloting so-called V2X technology with the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor for the past few years. Convinced that V2X technology, properly deployed, can save lives by avoiding crashes altogether, the DOT is now weighing industrywide standards. Still, auto industry experts say it could take about 15 years for the technology to be widespread enough to see the full benefits. After all, a talking car needs other talking cars to have a life-saving conversation.
In the meantime, though, carmakers say there are plenty of new technologies they can roll out incrementally that will improve dramatically improve safety.
Both GM and Honda, for instance, showed their progress on pedestrian safety systems, which check the surrounding area 10 times per second and can send a signal from the pedestrian’s smartphone straight to the car’s dashboard, even when the pedestrian isn’t visible to the driver. Although pedestrian research is a little behind vehicle-to-vehicle research, it could potentially be adopted much faster, says GM, because existing chips inside smartphones, like those made byQualcomm QCOM -0.57%, can be easily modified to communicate on dedicated vehicle-to-vehicle bandwidth.
Honda’s system not only warns the driver of an unseen pedestrian, but automatically slows the vehicle, then slams the brakes if the driver doesn’t react quickly enough. Afterwards, the pedestrian’s phone automatically sends a friendly “thank you” message to the car’s dashboard.
That kindness from strangers extends to another technology Honda showed called wireless towing. Let’s say you’ve fallen ill behind the wheel; maybe it’s a heart attack. You push the SOS beacon on the car’s mirror, which sends a distress signal to other nearby vehicles. A helpful motorist can pull in front and virtually take control of your car, towing it to safety on the side of the road, or even all the way to the hospital.
There’s a difference between fully autonomous cars that drive themselves, and highly automated vehicles, which can take over driving under certain conditions, like stop-and-go traffic, or long road trips. Mercedes-Benz already has a system that let’s the driver relax in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and most automakers will have some form of highly automated technology available by 2020, if not before, as in the case of Cadillac’s upcoming new model.
Meanwhile, at this week’s ITS World Congress, it was fun to see a glimpse of the future. French auto supplier Valeo, for instance, showed its connected automated valet parking system, which could be available within just five years. The system allows you to leave your car at the curb, and, with a few taps on your smartphone, tell it to go park itself. When you’re ready to leave, you can recall the car just as easily. It was unsettling to watch a car drive slowly through a parking lot with no one behind the wheel and then back into a vacant space, but no more unsettling than handing your keys to a 17-year-old kid with a bow tie and a sweat-stained shirt who then speeds away in your car.
Authored by Joann Muller via forbes.com.