It's pretty much an inevitability that the cars of the future will be autonomous. Whether you believe it will take us 5, 10 or 20 years to get there, almost every automaker is working toward the goal of autos that drive themselves and are incapable of making human mistakes.
However, today's tech cars are already teeming with technology that lays the groundwork for those robocars. You just have to check the right option boxes to get a taste of the future through today's cutting-edge safety tech. Modern advanced driver-assistance systems (or ADAS, for short) help drivers to watch for trouble ahead while driving and can even help steer you away from danger.
Today, I'm taking a very broad look at the ADAS technologies currently available in consumer vehicles so that you'll know what to look for when optioning your next new car. I'll be following up over the next few weeks with in-depth looks at each of these technologies and many more.
Blind-spot monitoring systems are among the most common ADAS technologies, being found on the options list of many mid-tier or budget models. The tech is sometimes shortened to BSM or called blind-spot warning (BSW). I tend to call it blind-spot information system (BLIS), as it was by Volvo, which originated the tech back in 2007 for use on its and Ford's vehicles.
This technology uses ultrasonic sensors located on the car's flanks to detect when another vehicle is located in the "blind-spots" at the rear corners left by improperly aimed mirrors or, more commonly, thick window pillars. If a car is detected in either blind spot, most BLIS implementations will illuminate a notification light in the side mirror or on the A-pillar on the appropriate side of the vehicle. If you activate the turn signal while BLIS is triggered, you'll also get an audible beep or tone to let you know to look twice before changing lanes.
Typically, blind-spot systems only work at speeds above 20 to 35-ish mph. This prevents false positives on city streets, but tends to only make the tech useful at highway speeds. Also, keep in mind that the technology is no replacement for an old-fashioned glance over your shoulder before changing lanes, and as I mentioned, the audible alerts work only if you actually use your turn signal.
The same ultrasonic sensors used for BLIS are often repurposed for the so-called rear cross-traffic alert systems that sound an audible tone when another vehicle is approaching from the sides while one is reversing out of a parking spot or driveway. BLIS and rear cross-traffic alerts are increasingly becoming "must-have" technology on larger SUVs and cars with poor rearward visibility.
We'll dig into more advanced, active blind-spot systems and alternative technologies likein a separate article soon.
Lane-departure alert and lane-keeping assist
A lane-departure alert system (LDA) -- also known as lane-departure warning (LDW) -- uses a camera or multiple cameras mounted at the front of a vehicle (most often at the top of the windshield behind the center mirror) to detect the boundaries of the road's lanes and whether your vehicle is within those bounds. The best systems can detect painted lines, Botts' dots or "cat's eye" raised reflectors.
If the LDA detects that your vehicle is crossing out of its lane without the driver indicating by using the turn signal, the system will activate visual and audible alerts, assuming the driver is inattentively drifting. Here's more incentive to actually use your turn signal for every lane change.
The active evolution of this technology is lane-keeping assisted steering, also known as LKAS or LKS. This system can actively steer the vehicle back into the lane using either the electric power steering or bias braking -- applying braking force to one wheel to pull the nose of the car in the opposite direction. Every LKAS system I've tested can be easily and instantly overridden by simply turning the steering wheel as you normally would; they all give up control as soon as the driver's input and intention are detected.
We'll dig into advanced lane-departure systems like Honda's road-departure mitigation, odd implementations such as the Crosswind Assist on Smart ForTwo, and cutting-edge steering-assist technologies like Volvo's Pilot Assist in a separate article soon.
Precollision warning and auto emergency braking
A precollision warning system is basically an unblinking eye on the road ahead. If this technology detects that you're approaching an obstruction fast enough to result in a collision, it will alert you with lights and sounds. So if the car ahead of you slams on its brakes while you're glancing back to check on the kids, the system can let you know to get your eyes back on the road and your foot on the brake, ASAP. The advantage is that the car's computers never blink and are more vigilant than even the most attentive driver.
Most of these systems use forward-facing radar to estimate distance to a vehicle ahead, but some -- like Subaru's EyeSight system -- use stereoscopic cameras. The best systems use a combination that blends the strengths of the two sensors: cameras are good at detecting small objects like pedestrians, cyclists or even large animals at low speed, while radar gives more accurate detection for large metallic cars further ahead at highway speeds, even in the fog or rain.
Of course, the next logical step is a car that can brake for itself when a collision is imminent. This autonomous emergency braking -- sometime called collision mitigation braking systems -- allows the car's computer to step in and automatically brake if the driver's reaction time isn't fast enough or they're otherwise incapacitated. At low enough speeds (usually below 25 to 30 mph), autonomous emergency braking can often bring a car to a complete stop, completely preventing a would-be accident. However, even at higher speeds these systems can reduce the severity or lethality of a collision.
Precollision alerts are becoming increasingly prevalent in modern cars. Volvo, for example, has made its City Safety system standard on all of its newand vehicles, but I'm not just talking about pricey luxury vehicles. The , for example, is a $16,000 budget compact that comes standard with front precollision alert and low-speed automatic emergency braking.
We'll dig into more advanced evolutions of autonomous braking and collision avoidance systems like Audi's turn-assist system and Volvo's oncoming lane detection -- which go so far as to monitor other lanes of traffic for threats and how this technology enables convenience features like adaptive cruise control in, you guessed it, a separate article soon.
Many of the systems we've looked at greatly improve safety for passengers at high speeds, but modern cars are also equipped with many features that help to keep those outside of the car safe at lower speeds.
The simplest of these technologies are camera systems that give the driver a clearer view of the area around, and particularly behind, the car. Usually this is a rear camera that activates when the car is in reverse; this could prevent a simple fender bender when used in concert with the rear cross-traffic alert discussed earlier, but it could even save the life of a small child or pet that you may not have otherwise seen behind an SUV with a tall rear gate or a sports car with poor rear visibility.
Around-view camera systems take this a step further, stitching together multiple camera feeds from the front, sides and rear of the vehicle to provide a bird's'-eye view of the area around the car. A similar feat can be accomplished with sonar sensors around the vehicle that measure distances to obstructions and sound alerts when you get too close to a wall, or a pedestrian is detected nearby.
We'll dig more into other low-speed safety technologies, other camera-based system like GM's rear camera mirror and semi-autonomous parking systems in future articles.
The future and the road to autonomy
The cars of tomorrow -- and even some of the most cutting edge cars of today -- will basically build on and improve these technologies, tightly integrating them into autonomous systems. Just look at lane keeping assisted steering and adaptive cruise control systems and you can already see the building blocks of systems like Volvo Pilot Assist, Tesla Autopilot and GM Super Cruise and, eventually, autonomous cars.
And we haven't even gotten to the communication technologies technologies that will allow cars to communicate with each other and with infrastructure, like Audi's Traffic Light Information system or the vehicle-to-vehicle communication technologies being pioneered by Mercedes-Benz and Volvo in Europe.
As I've repeatedly mentioned, I'll be going into more detail about these technologies -- and many more -- in a series of articles over the next few weeks and updating this overview to serve as a sort of table of contents for the series as it develops.