The Race To Get Your Hands Off The Wheel

When will driver assistance add up to autonomous driving?

2 min read
The Race To Get Your Hands Off The Wheel
Photo: Daimler

A fleet of cars and drivers whisks visiting journalists around the Frankfurt Motor Show's sprawling, 144-hectare site. Judging by the number of exhibits of self-driving car technology this year, future visitors can expect their courtesy cars to lack drivers. It's a matter of putting together many existing technologies in an affordable, safe system.

One piece of that future system nearly clobbered a two-dimensional cutout of a child last week on a fenced-off piece of asphalt outside Hall 10. There, Bosch employees led by Werner Uhler were demonstrating a stereo optical camera system Uhler says could be cheaper than combined radar and optical systems used for collision avoidance today. The device is mounted on the front window of a testbed car, adjacent to the rear-view mirror. As the testbed approached a parked car, Uhler, seated in the backseat, said, "We will drive along...and suddenly a child will turn up and we will brake."

That was true.

The colorful cutout of a child burst into harm's way from behind the parked car, as promised. The testbed car, moving at 35 kilometers per hour, as per New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) guidelines, slammed the car to a full stop within a few feet of the cardboard child. The NCAP has reported on commercial so-called Emergency Autonomous Braking (EAB) since 2010. In the real world, cars spend a lot of time driving faster than 35 kph and EAB's role is more about damage control than damage avoidance. But sending the cutout child flying, even if it is less distance than a human-driven car would have, might undermine the clear-cut message Bosch—and Daimler, which unveiled a very autonomous car at the Frankfurt show—and other manufacturers are sending: that they will soon drive your car better than you can. Put another way: future driving software, such as that announced by Audi, won't get bored or distracted in stop-and-go traffic.

It's not just luxury cars, either: Volvo showed off its latest moose-avoidance technology in Frankfurt, and Ford already offers Focus drivers a driver assistance package, Nissan and a chorus of other car makers have declared that they expect autonomous cars to reach commercial viability by 2020.

Autonomous braking is one of a slew of new technologies leading toward what manufacturers call "assisted driving," and "highly automated driving"—or more bluntly, "self-driving cars." Cars have assisted their drivers since the commercial advent of cruise control in 1958. But in the last few years, cars entering the market have begun to alert drivers to impending parking accidents, maintain a safe distance from cars ahead of them, and stay in an assigned lane. Where they show their limits, says Michael Fausten, the director of Bosch's autonomous driving team, are unanticipated combinations of risky situations. Solving those will require heavy mathematical lifting, he says.

Next door to the Bosch demonstration was a Volkswagen self-parking car, which a frazzled driver might want to buy after, say, a near-miss with an errant child. But on a drizzly day, the car's handlers told me to come back when it was sunny. So I flagged down a press car, got inside, and asked the chauffeur whether all the self-driving car technology on display made him worry about his job security. No, he said, without elaborating.

If he's right, chauffeurs and other drivers may become more like today's commercial pilots, overseeing a suite of interacting safety systems. If he's wrong, and autonomous driving systems take over our cars, journalists everywhere will lack an old standby source of quotes: the anonymous driver.

Photo: Daimler

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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