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Delphi demoes autonomous car technologies at new lab

At a launch event for its new Silicon Valley facility, automotive supplier Delphi demonstrated sensor and infotainment technologies.

Delphi automotive demonstration
Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The electronics in your car's dashboard were probably not made by the car's manufacturer. Most automakers rely on suppliers for stereos and navigation systems, and one of the largest in the world is Delphi. To keep up with the latest in technology, Delphi followed its automaker clients by establishing a new development facility in Mountain View, Calif., putting it in close proximity to giants Google and Apple, and a multitude of smaller companies developing technology useful in the car.

During the launch week for the new facility, Delphi invited me down to see some examples of its latest development projects. These ranged from an integrated infotainment and safety suite to a module that will let drivers wirelessly charge their personal electronics.

The products of a tier 1 supplier such as Delphi often have a conceptual look -- we don't see the final results until automakers incorporate them into production vehicles, putting a brand spin on them in the process. As such, what I saw at Delphi serves as an indicator of what features will be showing up in future vehicles.

Electronic awareness
A key component of autonomous cars, Delphi equipped a Volvo wagon with four radar sensors, one at each corner. These sensors give the car a 360-degree radar field that can detect buildings, other cars, and pedestrians.

In the car, a Delphi staff member demonstrated the radar data using a visualization tool on a laptop. In real time, the laptop screen showed the inputs from the four radar sensors, each in its own color. The program on the laptop was able to analyze the sensor data and distinguish the different types of moving and immobile objects around the car. For the purpose of the visualization, pedestrians were shown as ovals and stationary objects as X's.

Hidden under the bumper fascia sits one of four radar sensors giving this car 360-degree vision. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Rather than have a large, spinning array mounted on the roof, as with the Google autonomous cars, Delphi hid its four radar sensors behind the bumper fascia at each corner. Each radar has a 150-degree radius, allowing for overlap in the fields, and detects objects up to 260 feet away.

An important part of the system is the computer, which analyzes the sensor input for size and movement, then makes a determination of what it might be.

Automakers could use this type of radar awareness to implement a number of safety features. For example, the system would know when a bicyclist is riding next to the car, and could alert the driver and even prevent him from making a right turn which would result in a collision.

Driver attention
Delphi had another Volvo on hand to demonstrate what it called MyFi Connected with Safety, the label MyFi being Delphi's name for its connected infotainment product. The safety aspect of this system not only monitored the area around the car, but also the driver.

A module combining radar and cameras, which Delphi calls RACam, was mounted on the windshield, in front of the rearview mirror. Volvo has these modules in its production cars as part of its City Safety feature, which automatically brakes if it detects an imminent collision. Delphi's development car also had a camera trained on the driver.

The green block over the driver image indicates the car knows the driver is looking at the road. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

When the driver looked away from the windshield for more than 2 seconds in this stationary demonstration, an amber light designed to catch the driver's attention flashed on the windshield. If the driver ignored the flashing alert, the system locked out touch-screen input to the center LCD.

Of course, an automaker would implement its own driver inattention alerts and lock-outs. Delphi's demonstration showed an example of what could be done.

Similar to the driver attention monitor, the car used its external sensors, radar and camera, to determine nearby traffic. When the car sensed it was in an area with a lot of traffic or pedestrians, it could lock out certain functions of the infotainment system, disable the touch screen altogether, or restrict the driver to voice control.

Essentially, the car would determine how safe it is, depending on current surroundings, to use the infotainment functions.

This in-car LCD is running four separate screens, showing navigation, radio tuner, Cover Flow, and a movie. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

As one example, the MyFi system included a smart text-messaging feature. In a low-traffic situation, the car alerted the driver he had an incoming text message, and who it was from, on a display just below the windshield. With a steering-wheel button, the driver was able to make the car read the text out loud. However, in heavy traffic, the car merely showed the driver there was an incoming text message, but did not allow him to access it until the driving situation became safer.

A further demonstration of the MyFi system, this time in an Audi A7, showed off some powerful processing capabilities. The center LCD in the car could render navigation, radio tuner, album Cover Flow for local media, and a movie all at the same time, in each corner of the screen. Wirelessly, a Delphi staffer used a tablet to send different media to the right and left rear-seat entertainment screens.

Rather than using headphones, Delphi integrated speakers into the rear headrests and subwoofers into the seats. The tight audio field from these speakers allowed each rear-seat passenger to watch a different movie with very little sound bleed-over.

Obviously no automaker, and probably no driver, would want four different screens showing on the main LCD. But if the MyFi system can handle that level of processing, it should experience no lag for simpler tasks, such as showing a detailed map and handling a driver's destination entry or other system inputs.

As much as I tried, the Delphi representatives on hand would not reveal which of these technologies will appear in what cars in the near future. However, the company supplies parts and technologies to just about every major automaker. With the pace of technology adoption in the automotive industry and the functionality of Delphi's demonstrations, we should be looking for some very advanced features to hit the roads in model year 2016.