September 9, 2013 4:56 pm
Clearing the road for self-driving cars
By Chris Bryant
When Mercedes-Benz launched its S-Class saloon at a Hamburg airfield in May, the carmaker pulled out all the stops, booking singer Alicia Keys to serenade the new luxury vehicle.
But the real show-stopper was the rich palette of automated driving functions that the Stuttgart-based carmaker packed into its flagship model.
The S-Class combines an onboard stereo camera with long, medium and short-range radar that allows the vehicle to brake autonomously if a pedestrian suddenly steps into the road as well as correct an attempt to change lane if it is already occupied.
On the motorway, the vehicle automatically positions itself in the centre of the lane. Adaptive cruise control at speeds of up to 200kph ensures it maintains a constant distance from the vehicle in front. In a slow-moving traffic jam situation, the vehicle can in effect drive by itself.
Ralf Herrtwich, director of driver assistance and chassis systems at Mercedes-Benz, says the networking of cameras, sensors, actuators, data-processing and back-up systems required to deliver autonomous driving is of “almost mind-boggling complexity”. Still, the marque’s owner Daimler aims to be the first to introduce other autonomous functions in series production vehicles this decade.
Indeed, self-driving cars, long a staple of science fiction movies, are step by step becoming science fact and autonomous driving technologies will be very much in evidence when the Frankfurt motor show commences on Tuesday.
Ralf Cramer, board member at Continental, the German parts supplier, explains: “Autonomous driving will come about from a base of advanced driving assistance systems. Technically, we can do it already today [in testing and development] but if we put all this technology into a production car, the vehicle would be too expensive.”
Some of these systems are already finding their way into non-premium vehicles. The new Ford Focus can parallel park itself without the driver touching the wheel and the Ford S-Max Concept, to be shown in Frankfurt, includes perpendicular parking capability and automatic braking if a collision with a pedestrian is imminent.
Meanwhile, Nissan has pledged that by 2020 it will launch the first series self-driving car and it will strive to introduce automated driving across its model range within two vehicle generations, at an affordable price.
Although some purists fear automated driving will kill the pleasure of being behind the wheel, there are commonsense arguments for taking humans out of the driving equation, at least some of the time.
“The motivation for further automation in the vehicle is converting the time you normally need for operating the vehicle into free time,” says Alfred Eckert, head of advanced engineering at Continental’s chassis & safety division, referring to the sometimes monotonous daily commute. Another key motivation is improving safety, he says, as human error is a factor in the vast majority of traffic accidents.
The German tyre, component and systems supplier believes partially automated driving at low speeds will be a reality by 2016. By 2025, Conti foresees fully automated driving, where no monitoring of the system is required by the driver, at first in a highway scenario.
Toscan Bennett, vice-president of product planning at Volvo Cars, which has developed technologies such as automatic braking, pedestrian detection and self-parking, says: “Today’s drivers are ready for autonomy ... For safety, fuel economy, less congestion, freedom, comfort and convenience.”
But he adds: “Autonomous driving is not going to be a Big Bang, it’s going to be a series of little steps.”
Although carmakers and suppliers have been working on automated technologies for years, the industry was given a big jolt when outsider Google unveiled its own automated driving technology in 2010.
The Google system uses a Lidar – a spinning rooftop sensor that harnesses 64 lasers to help generate a 3D picture of the vehicle’s surroundings in real-time – as well as its own mapping software and algorithms.
Google won over doubters by publishing a video of a nearly blind man running errands in its test vehicle.
Google and others were able to test autonomous vehicles on public roads after US states such as Nevada, California and Florida passed new autonomous vehicle legislation (the rules require there to be a driver behind the wheel)
Still, governments, regulators and insurance companies are likely to require further assurances before there is widespread adoption of self-driving cars.
A host of questions remain unanswered. For example: who is responsible if an autonomous vehicle is involved in an accident – the car or the driver? And does the operator of a self-driving car require a new kind of vehicle training?
Mr Herrtwich at Mercedes-Benz says: “We are having to anticipate what regulators would tell us for the future when autonomous driving gets more and more real. Right now the legal situation is a grey area regarding how far can the driver be out of the loop.”
The US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued new guidelines in May welcoming the potential of autonomous vehicle technology to cut accidents. However, it advised US states not to go beyond testing for the time being and said operators should be licensed before they were allowed to take self-driving vehicles on the road.
One of the biggest challenges will be moving from highways to ordinary roads, where the number of variables and interactions climbs considerably and highly precise maps and GPS positioning are required.
“As soon as you leave the highway, things get much more complicated,” says Mr Herrtwich at Mercedes-Benz.
Self-driving cars are also set to consume and generate huge amounts data, and will probably require a sophisticated back-end server and a secure way for cars to communicate in real-time with the cloud and other vehicles. Daimler said its self-driving test vehicle produced 300 gigabytes of data every hour from its stereo camera alone.
The industry must also carefully consider how much redundancy (back-up systems) the system will need in order to assure consumers that self-driving cars really are safer.
Additional reporting by Henry Foy