In the 2004 film "I, Robot," the main character is a bit of a technophobe who manually pilots his Audi RSQ despite the fact that it--and every other vehicle in the film--is capable of driving itself. The film takes place in 2035, but it's already 2010. Where the hell is my autopilot button?
With all of the advances in vehicle safety and automation tech, that elusive button may be closer than you think. We've rounded up a collection of current and future vehicle automation technologies that may one day form the building blocks of the self-driving car.
The first step toward autonomous vehicles was the now ubiquitous technology known as cruise control, which was invented in 1945. This feature allows vehicles to maintain a speed without the driver providing throttle input. Over the years, the tech has grown from a simple speed sensor and solenoid combination into a computer-controlled system that can use logic to detect grade and steering inputs to more efficiently and safely maintain vehicle speed.
On the cutting edge is adaptive cruise control systems such as Mercedes-Benz' Distronic Plus that lets drivers set a cruising speed. These system use a forward looking sensor that will watch for vehicles ahead and match speeds with slower traffic.
Like the Mercedes-Benz adaptive cruise control system, Infiniti's Distance Control will also match the speed of slower traffic ahead. Adaptive cruise systems from Infiniti, Lexus, Mercedes, and others will even bring the vehicle to a complete halt if the cars ahead stop, making them useful for creeping along in heavy traffic.
Built on the same technology as adaptive cruise systems, Volvo's City Safety system on its XC60 crossover constantly monitors the distance and closing speed of vehicles in its lane at low speeds. If the system detects that a crash is eminent, it will apply the brakes in an attempt to slow the vehicle.
At closing speeds of less than nine miles per hour, the system can slow the car sufficiently enough to avoid a crash, bringing the car to a complete stop if necessary. At higher speeds, the prebraking can reduce the trauma of a fender-bender.
Most adaptive cruise systems use radar or lasers to track the position of vehicles ahead. A few use gyros and steering angle to figure out where the road's going; however, Nissan's next generation Intelligent Cruise Control looks much further down the road.
By taping into the vehicle's GPS system, Intelligent Cruise can analyze the road ahead and adjust your set speed accordingly. For example, if the system sees a curvy section ahead, it may reduce your speed to compensate. This system should be included in the next-generation Nissan Fuga in the Japanese market--and hopefully the Infiniti M in the U.S. market.
Future systems could also tie into weather and traffic systems to compensate for slippery conditions, prebraking for traffic, or slowing for construction zones.
A few years ago, Toyota worked with Aisin AW to develop a system called Navi-Matic. This system tied the GPS system into other vehicle systems to potentially improve vehicle comfort and safety.
For example, the system could recognize a curve approaching and predownshift the transmission for less gear hunting. In another implementation, the suspension could mark bumps and potholes in the navigation system and presoften the adjustable suspension on subsequent trips to better absorb the shock.
The more information that vehicles can collect from the road through systems like Navi-Matic, the better equipped they'll be when the time comes for them to take over driving.
While vehicles have proven to be capable of safely maintaining their speed unassisted, steering themselves is a different matter. While not as common in North American vehicles, Nissan, Honda, and Toyota all offer some sort of active lane keeping function in the Japanese market. The systems actively work (through steering or bias braking) to keep a cruising vehicle in its lane.
Toyota's Lane Keep Assist is a camera-based system that watches the lane divider lines on the road and the driver's face. If the system sees that the vehicle is drifting over a line without a turn signal, it will buzz the steering wheel. If the system sees that the driver is also not paying attention (perhaps looking into the back seat), it will gently nudge the electric power steering rack, pulling the vehicle back into its lane and alerting the driver.
Of course, the driver's hands must be on the wheel for the system to work and the driver is still able to push through the system's resistance if the lane change is intentional.
Although still in the conceptual stages, the next evolution of Mercedes-Benz' Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control--demoed on the F800 Style concept at the 2010 Frankfurt auto show--will include a feature a called Traffic Jam Assistant.
This camera-based system recognizes vehicles ahead and lane markings and is capable of automatically following the vehicle in front of it into curves at speeds up to about 25mph. The driver can just sit back and relax--with hands on the steering wheel, of course--and let the vehicle steer itself.
The system is smart enough not to follow a vehicle that's changing lanes or making a turn and is easily overridden with driver steering inputs in the case of an emergency.
The first major advances in vehicle steering automation available to consumers operates not on the highways, but in parking lot.
Toyota's automated parking system, available on the Lexus LS 600h, uses cameras and a touch-screen interface to let drivers choose a parking space. Once locked in, the system takes over steering to parallel park the vehicle or reverse into a perpendicular spot. The user retains full control of acceleration and braking during this process.
Although many people have complained about the touch-screen interface, which significantly raises the complexity level of a system meant to simplify parking, we found that this system worked as advertised.
The next generation of parking technology from Ford is dramatically more simple than the previous systems. Found on the Lincoln MKS and MKT, Ford uses ultrasonic sensors to search for available roadside parking and automatically notifies the user when a spot large enough is found. Like the Lexus system, Ford's Active Park Assist takes over steering to guide the vehicle into the spot, leaving braking and accelerating in the driver's hand, er, foot.
Because of its much simpler one-button interface, the Ford system is only able to automatically parallel park, where the Lexus can also reverse into conventional spots. We'll accept this compromise for the enhanced ease-of-use any day.
So how do vehicles make the jump from simply cruising the freeway and parallel parking to fully autonomy?
In 2004, 2005, and again in 2007, the Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) posed an open challenge to researchers to solve this problem. The 2007 event even included an urban driving challenge where vehicles attempted to navigate residential areas, a deceptively complex task that we humans often take for granted.
Volkswagen-Audi's latest autonomous test mule is decidedly slicker than the DARPA challenge vehicles, with a significantly smaller sensor array and the sexier proportions of a sports coupe. During the course of its testing, Audi plans to run the autonomous TTS up Pike's Peak, a grueling course that is challenging even to human drivers.
We're sure there's a strong contingency of drivers who are a bit hesitant to hand over driving duties to a cold computer. For many drivers, ourselves included, driving is just too darn fun.
However, there are times where even we'd want to flip on the autopilot and get some reading done while stuck in a traffic jam. Anyone who's ever been tempted to respond to a text message or important e-mail from behind the wheel will also benefit from this technology when it comes available--and the roads will be much safer for it.
The self-driving car of the future is coming; and we can't wait.