It has been obvious for years that in many situations, cars could more safely be piloted by computers than by humans. In fact, the technology already exists, but lacks standardisation and regulatory acceptance. If we compare the situation to passenger aeroplanes, autopilots have, for decades, quite safely managed whole flights, including take off and landing where required.
It is true that highly-trained pilots can sometimes save the day in dire emergencies – but they can also make errors, too, just as human car drivers (who are not highly trained) often do. Computers, on the other hand, never get tired, distracted or bored. They are never drunk, nor are they likely to make phone calls, chat with the other occupants of the car or try to impress their girlfriends…
All of this is the reason that cars are starting to be equipped with a staggering array of active safety systems. These monitor your driving and can take control of your car in emergencies to prevent a collision. In this article, I will introduce a few of the more common examples so that you know what to look for next time you buy a new car.
Active Cruise Control
Regular cruise control relies on the driver to override it, either by pressing on the accelerator or applying the brakes, when it will automatically cut out.
Active cruise control goes one better and monitors the position and proximity of nearby vehicles, especially those which are directly in front of you. If the distance to the vehicle in front suddenly starts to decrease, active cruise control will lower your car’s speed until the gap to the next vehicle becomes safe again.
Autonomous Emergency Braking
Autonomous Emergency Braking uses radar or cameras fitted to the front of the car to monitor what is happening in front. If the system detects that the distance between your car and the car in front is rapidly decreasing – to the extent that a collision is likely – then it will automatically warn you of the danger and may apply your car’s brakes to avoid or reduce the severity of the resulting collision.
When drivers get tired and are struggling to stay awake, their behaviour changes. Although the changes can be subtle, and may not be noticed by human passengers in the car, it is possible for a computer system to monitor the change in steering, braking and accelerator input and determine that the driver is not fully alert.
A warning alert of some kind will then be activated – either audible, visual or both.
Rather like something out of a fighter plane’s cockpit display, night vision uses infra-red cameras to pickup images of people and other potential hazards that may lie in your path but not yet be visible in the beam of your headlights.
These images are then displayed on a screen on your dashboard or on a ‘heads up display’ that is projected onto your windscreen, allowing you to plan ahead and avoid the hazard. A good example would be the common one of a cyclist cycling in the dark, with no lights or reflective clothing.
Active Lane Assist systems stop you accidentally drifting out of your lane. Small cameras monitor the position of the lane markings (white lines) and the system will alert you if you start to drift towards a lane marking without having your indicators on.
Some of the more advanced system will go further, and will actually correct your steering to keep you in your lane, demonstrating how advanced the capabilities of these systems are becoming. You could, theoretically, take your hands off the steering wheel and let the car steer itself down a motorway, especially if you had your active cruise control engaged, too. Obviously I am not recommending this, but I suspect it is a sign of things to come.
Side View Cameras
Sometimes, you cannot see clearly to the left and right when pulling out of a junction. Side view cameras, situated on each end of your front bumper, enable a driver to see what’s coming before they stick their nose out into the traffic.
Electronic Stability Control
Electronic Stability Control, or ESC, is not actually that new. Many cars, especially German prestige models, have been equipped with it for years, although it can usually be switched off.
The purpose of ESC is to help prevent skids by automatically applying the brakes to individual wheels if the system senses that the car might be about to skid. Braking indvidual wheels is impossible for a driver to do but is an effective way of controlling or preventing a skid.
ESC will be compulsory on all new vehicles in the EU from November 2014.
Cars That Drive Themselves – It Is Just A Question of Time
I have provided a brief introduction into some of the most common driver assistance systems in this article, but there is much more to come. The combination of systems such as these with GPS technology and mapping means that cars truly can drive themselves, navigate accurately and avoid other traffic.
GPS technology already makes it possible for intelligent speed limiters to be fitted to vehicles. These systems limit the vehicle’s top speed to the current speed limit on that stretch of road. When the speed limit changes, the car’s speed limiter is adjusted to the new value.
For my money, the first roads that will play host to automatically-driven vehicles will be motorways. They are virtually straight, the lanes are always well marked and they have a consistent structure. Traffic only moves in one direction and there are no junctions or roundabouts to deal with. The main challenges for a driver are the speed and the monotony of motorway driving – neither of which is a problem for a computer.
I think that in my lifetime, we will see a move towards all vehicles being set to ‘autodriver’ when they get on a motorway, allowing the driver to sit back and snooze, relax or even work. This could potentially improve traffic flow on motorways, as the speed of all vehicles on the carriageway could be automatically regulated by GPS signals. In busy times, speed would be reduced to reduce bottlenecks and stop-start traffic. In quiet times, average speed could be increased to allow people to benefit from the empty lanes.
I think it sounds quite good. Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.
Update: This article about the European Commission’s plans for Europe-wide traffic rules include a mention of “more driver assistance systems” and “smart speed limiters” to improve safety. Not only will these improve safety (and they will – human drivers are very unreliable), but systems like those outlined in this article should also reduce congestion and emissions, two of the EC’s main targets over the next 20-40 years.