To find out what driving's like when you have a sixth sense, I took a radar-equipped Audi A8 around the highways and byways of Stuttgart, Germany. It was great.
I couldn't help but smile when I pulled behind a huge truck and, resisting the temptation to hit the brakes, focused on steering. The adaptive cruise-control system, which uses a new radar from Robert Bosch that can see hundreds of meters ahead, did the rest. The system gently nestled the car behind the juggernaut and accelerated at my command, so I was able to pull out into the passing lane, all the while getting the most out of the 4.2-liter diesel, which rapidly propelled me to the speed I'd selected.
The system did have its foibles. Once the radar locked onto the car in front of me, and when the car turned hard to the right and then hard to the left, the radar came unlocked. So I took control, applying the brakes well before the emergency braking would have kicked in. That episode was a little disconcerting. Still, I could easily get used to this gizmo.
Most people who have driven for a while using such a radar are loath to ever give it up. And the number of such devotees will only grow as this technology—which now adds about US $1000 to the price of the car—becomes more affordable. The first commercial system appeared in Japan in 1997, on the Toyota Celsior; others soon followed in some top-of-the-line models from the likes of BMW, Jaguar, Lexus, Nissan, and Mercedes. The market has been expanding at about 40 percent a year, and as prices fall, that rate should rise.
Today's systems can dramatically reduce your risk of rear-ending someone else's car, and when most cars have such radars, they will also be much less likely to rear-end you. Once every vehicle on the road is able to sense and avoid others, there'll be no reason why they won't be able to negotiate tailing distances among themselves. Eventually, they might even be sending radio messages about their intentions to one another and to monitors on the roadway over ad hoc communication networks. Smart roads may thus emerge organically.
The first step in that evolution, the democratization of radar, is clearly under way. Next year Bosch will release a less expensive version of its radar, with a range of 160 meters, two-thirds that of the one I tested. This won't be a problem, though, because it's intended for cars that don't go nearly as fast.
Falling costs are the key, but of course, costs don't fall by themselves. Engineers have done their part by ditching the expensive compound semiconductors in their radar sets in favor of the old standby, silicon—but a special form of silicon that's been speeded up.