Do we need assistance while driving? While some people believe we can’t do without it, others disagree. Yet recent research has shown that driver error is one of the most common causes of traffic accidents. Matthew Beecham reports on how driver assistance technologies are edging us towards the autonomous car.
Autonomous or driverless cars have been talked about for decades. The earliest representation of such a car appeared way back at the 1939 World’s Fair. Here, an exhibit sponsored by GM depicted electric cars powered by circuits embedded in the roadway and controlled by radio. Driverless cars have featured on the big screen, too. Remember how the Batmobile drove itself to Batman’s location? Holy smoke, that vision is almost a reality.
Over the past decade or so, momentum for autonomous driving has gathered pace to the point where a driverless car is no longer science fiction. Among those development projects which have hit the headlines recently is one supported by Google. For some time, Google has been testing a fleet of almost fully autonomous hybrid cars. The company claims its cars have travelled more than 300,000 miles without an accident while under computer control.
Backed by private and publicly funded research, a number of other projects are pushing back the technical boundaries to driverless cars. The common vision, however, of a fully autonomous vehicle is one capable of sensing its environment and navigating without the need for driver intervention. Such vehicles sense their surroundings using techniques such as radar, lidar, GPS and computer vision systems.
Do we need autonomous vehicles?
Those in favour of autonomous driving are quick to point out a number of benefits, such as fewer accidents (thanks to its 360 degree sensors), reduced traffic congestion, improved fuel efficiency and, of course, relieving the occupant of driving, parking and navigating the vehicle (something we all might especially appreciate as we live for longer).
An autonomous car is also an attractive option when out on the town, serving as a designated driver.
But not everyone likes the idea of driverless cars running around on our roads. A sudden malfunction could leave you frighteningly powerless. And does the car’s algorithm cover the simple but unexpected rolling football on the road? Aside from who is to blame if something goes wrong, it will take some time for the public, drivers and pedestrians alike to feel comfortable with such technology.
Meanwhile, some people argue that driverless cars could increase congestion and reduce fuel efficiency. For instance, an autonomous car left to locate a parking space could go round and round the block endlessly. And what then? Does it drive itself home leaving you to call it back thereby using more fuel in the process? Furthermore, instead of opting for public transport we could see more people opting to take their autonomous car therefore adding to congestion. There are issues of privacy, too. Whether you like it or not, such cars will record your every move.
And then, of course, there are many of us who just like driving cars. So the last thing we want or need is some geeky technology doing it for us.
Whichever way you look at it, driverless cars are coming to a road near you. Lawyers will be among the first group to benefit, too. We suspect that there will be one or two spectacular debacles in the early years of their use as unforeseen kinks are ironed out.
Are they legal?
As autonomous technology advances, legislation is catching-up. In June 2011, the state of Nevada was the first to pass a law concerning the operation of autonomous cars. Since then, two more states, Florida and California have passed laws allowing driverless cars.
More recently, in June 2013 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) unveiled new guidelines for self-driving cars. The new guidelines urge that such cars be used only for testing and that safeguards ensure they can be taken over by a driver in the case of malfunction. Again, as politicians pave the way for self-driving cars, the thorny issue of liability in the event of such a malfunction remains.
Partial autonomous driving technology is already with us
Although fully autonomous vehicles are not yet available to the public, there are increasing numbers of models offering assistance to the driver as standard. These include adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist and parking assistance (see below). And these features are just the tip of the iceberg among production cars.
For example, the 2014 model year Mercedes-Benz S Class has the option of autonomous steering, braking, parking, lane guidance, accident avoidance and driver fatigue detection. Meanwhile, the BMW i3 has the capability to autonomously steer, accelerate and brake in traffic jams at up to 25 MPH.
Israel’s Mobileye told us that they expect to release self-driving autonomous technology in the third quarter of this year. Looking further ahead, Google expects to release its autonomous car technology by 2018. And by 2020, Volvo expects accident-free cars and ‘road trains’ in which individual cars are guided by a driver in a lead vehicle.
Driver assistance technologies aim to make the vehicle capable of perceiving its surroundings, interpret them, identify critical situations, and assist the driver in performing driving manoeuvres. The object is, at best, to prevent accidents completely and, at worst, to minimise the consequences of an accident for those concerned.
While the possibilities to ‘assist the driver’ seem endless, is there a risk of information overload? We reckon that as driver assistance systems are designed to help a driver in potential emergency situations, any warnings given by the system must be clearly understandable in order to allow them to react quickly and correctly in a potential high-stress situation. The design of the human machine interface is the key as more and more information becomes available. Driver feedback is critical. The worst outcome would be to annoy the driver with constant alarms and warnings.
Technology cascading down the segments
While autonomous driving technologies are appearing across the premium segments, they are starting to appear in less expensive cars. For example, Nissan recently announced that it is to include advanced safety systems on the new Note and is claiming that it is first-in-segment. Described as the Nissan Safety Shield, the company claims that it is the first to include such systems: blind spot warning, lane departure warning and moving object detection as well as Nissan’s ‘around view monitor’ on a small car.
The fact is that multi-function cameras have already penetrated down to mass market C-segment vehicles in Europe, and are expected to migrate further downwards in the next five years driven by Euro NCAP and future regulations. While the smaller A and B segment cars are the most price-sensitive, these same smaller and lighter vehicles are most vulnerable in a crash and can benefit the most from accident avoidance technologies. So we could expect to see automakers using this as a safety differentiator in these segments.
Adaptive cruise control (ACC)
In order to gauge the stage we are at with the semi-autonomous car, let’s now take a closer look at which models are offering assistance to the driver.
Today’s adaptive cruise control relies on radar or laser technology to track a vehicle ahead and maintain a safe gap. It lets the car hold a speed but adjusts to changing traffic conditions with automatic braking and acceleration.
Although it is mainly the large and luxury vehicle models being equipped with ACC, the technology is not exclusive to these segments. For example, ACC is being offered on the Ford Focus as well as the upper trim level of the Ford Taurus, Toyota Avalon and Hyundai Genesis.
The fact that the Ford Focus now offers ACC represents a milestone in the market. We expect others to follow as there is no reason to consider driver assistance as a luxury status symbol.
Each automaker has a different name for ACC: Infiniti refers to it as Intelligent Cruise Control, Toyota calls it Dynamic Laser Cruise Control, Hyundai’s name is Smart Cruise Control while BMW refers to it as Active Cruise Control.
Advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) technologies are also becoming increasingly common in the European mass-market C and D segments. For example, a lane keeping assist system is offered in the Lancia Delta hatchback and ACC radar system in the VW Passat but do not yet appear in the A and B segments. We expect to see a wider rollout of ADAS technology in European C segment vehicles in the next 2-3 years, as new forward-looking radar products continue to drive down the cost of ADAS technology.
Now that the NHTSA has made collision warning and lane departure alert part of the New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) requirements for a five-star safety rating, we can expect the market for such technology in North America to grow.
While NHTSA has helped drive this market, there are other market forces playing an important role in their popularity. Insurance companies dotted across Europe offer price reductions for vehicles with these features, and we expect insurance companies in the US to follow suit, although more conservatively.
Meanwhile, consumer awareness of these collision mitigation features is increasing. We are seeing more TV advertising from a number of automakers, and buyers are developing an expectation that such advanced safety features be ‘built in’ to their vehicles as standard.
For sure, parking assistance systems are becoming increasingly popular but the market is still in its infancy. This feature is more popular on SUVs which typically have restricted rear visibility and more difficult to park.
As we would expect, luxury automakers Lexus and Mercedes are offering parking assistance. Lexus models being offered with parking assistance include the LS460L and LS460L AWD while it is fitted as standard equipment on the LS4600hl hybrid. Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz offers Active Park Assist on a number of models, including the CLS550 and CL563 AMG as well as the M Class. And BMW offers auto parking on the 3, 5, 6 and 7 Series sedans.
Like ACC and lane assist, parking assistance is not the sole preserve of the luxury classes. For its part, Ford made available its active park assist way back in mid-2009 on the Focus, Explorer, Escape, Flex, Lincoln MKS and Lincoln MKT. Those Ford models offered with automatic parking today include the Focus, Fusion and Taurus. Lincoln also offers it on the MKS and MKZ.
How fast is the market growing?
Just-auto’s QUBE service estimates and forecasts certain OE driver assistance systems fitted to newly-assembled passenger cars and light vehicles across 14 of the world’s largest light vehicle markets which collectively account for more than 98% of world light vehicle production.
To illustrate, the table above sets out our estimates and forecasts of the percentage of OE ADAS fitted to newly-assembled passenger cars and light vehicles in North America, starting with how the market looked last year and how each product application could grow by 2022.
On balance, radar-based safety technologies such as advance collision warning and blind-spot detection are becoming commonplace as optional equipment on new C-segment vehicles. While we have seen multi-function cameras on the high-end and medium segment cars for some time, such technology is indeed permeating down to the low-end in Europe and North America.
Writer: Matthew Beecham