Monday, December 9, 2013

Cars that drive better than you do

Continental Automated Driving

Robots and self-driving cars will make the world a much better place to live.


Technology is making humans behind the wheel obsolete, and self-driving vehicles that anyone can buy are closer than you might think. See gallery
There was a time when self-driving vehicles were mere science fiction, part of a reality that was always "on the horizon." Technology is changing that view. Several automakers claim they'll have self-driving cars on the market by the end of the decade, and Google says it could have autonomous robot vehicles on the road by 2017. Bold declarations aside, some vehicles that are available now practically drive themselves, thanks to driver-assist systems such as lane centering and adaptive cruise control. Add technologies like emergency autonomous braking and some cars drive better on their own than with humans behind the wheel. Let's look at the players in this developing realm.

Many credit the Pentagon with pushing autonomous driving technology via the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which created the Grand Challenge competition in 2004 and put up $6.5 million in prize money to foster the development of driverless military vehicles. None of the robot vehicles entered in the competition completed a 142-mile course in the Mojave Desert. But in the second year, a self-driving Volkswagen Touareg (named Stanley) built by a team from Stanford University completed a similar desert route to claim victory.

In 2007, the third DARPA autonomous car competition, dubbed the Urban Challenge, moved to a decommissioned Air Force base in Victorville, Calif. The 60-mile course involved challenges such as maneuvering around other vehicles, negotiating obstacles and merging into traffic. This time it was Stanford rival (and the 2005 runner-up) Carnegie Mellon University and its self-driving 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe that took the top prize and proved that autonomous vehicles could mix with human-driven cars without incident.

Audi was the first automaker to unveil a fully autonomous vehicle: a self-driving 2009 TTS that was developed in conjunction with the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford, Sun Microsystems, and Volkswagen's Electronic Research Lab. Audi set a goal for the TTS to race up Pikes Peak, similar to the way it would with a professional rally driver at the wheel. It accomplished this feat in 2010.

In 2010, Internet search giant Google revealed that a self-driving Toyota Prius it had outfitted with groundbreaking technology such as a spinning lidar (light detection and ranging technology) sensor on the roof had logged almost 150,000 miles on public roads. Many credit Google — and its threat to usurp the auto industry at its own game — with accelerating development of autonomous cars.

In 2011, Volkswagen took the technology developed for the self-driving Audi TTS and morphed it into Volkswagen's Temporary Auto Pilot. While monitored by a driver, the technology allowed a car to drive semi-automatically at speeds of up to 80 mph on highways. It was also a forerunner of the layering of driver-assist technologies such as adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist that we see on cars today. Temporary Auto Pilot was an important stepping-stone toward a fully self-driving car.

Soon other car companies beside Volkswagen were rolling out self-driving concepts. Late in 2011, BMW showed a prototype vehicle based on the 5-Series that included the automaker's highly automated driving technology. According to BMW, the prototype logged more than 3,000 miles with virtually no driver involvement. While it uses driver-assist technology, the BMW concept also employs digital maps and GPS information to determine its exact location and receive detailed information about routes ahead, including the number of lanes.

Ford has predicted that self-driving vehicles will be available to the public as early as 2017, but its 2013 Fusion can already practically drive itself. With driver-assist technology such as pull-drift compensation and a lane-keeping system that actively takes over certain driving tasks, as well as driver-alert and blind-spot indicator systems that warn of unseen dangers, the car is already semiautonomous. It's also an example of how sophisticated driver-assist features are now available in cars at much lower price points.

Not all autonomous driving requires a human behind the wheel. A good number of production vehicles have self-parking technology that allows a car to steer into a spot and accelerate on its own — no driver needed, except to monitor the system. A concept from automotive supplier Bosch proves that self-parking can be accomplished via a smartphone app, allowing an owner to step out of the car. BMW, Nissan, Volkswagen and Volvo also have shown similar robotic valet concepts.

Volvo prefers that your self-driving car travels with a pack. The safety-minded Swedish automaker has been working with a consortium of partners in Europe called Safe Road Trains for the Environment (cleverly acronymed as SARTRE) that allows cars to travel in a semiautonomous fashion in a "platoon" behind a professional driver, usually in a larger truck. Volvo says that the adoption of these road trains would better allow self-driving cars to travel on existing public highways and interact with other traffic on the road.

It's not just automakers and Google that are getting into the self-driving car game. Automotive supplier Continental was the second company (behind Google and in front of Audi) to get an autonomous car license from the state of Nevada to legally drive and test a self-driving vehicle on U.S. public roads. Continental, which recently formed an alliance with Google, calls its self-driving Volkswagen Passat an "automated driving" concept. The car has logged over 15,000 miles.

Existing adaptive cruise control helps a car keep pace with the vehicle in front, while lane-departure prevention can keep it between the stripes. The next step is lane-keeping assist, or what Cadillac calls Super Cruise. The system takes the real-time data from onboard long-range radar, stereo cameras and short-range ultrasonic sensors and combines it with existing computer-controlled systems so the car knows how to steer, when to accelerate and when to brake — and also when not to.

At the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Toyota unveiled a Lexus LS sedan that it called an Advanced Active Safety Research Vehicle. Toyota refrained from calling the gear-laden LS a self-driving car, and instead said the car will "observe, process and respond to the vehicle's surroundings." The Lexus includes a 360-degree lidar sensor with a range of 230 feet that can detect stationary objects 3.2 seconds away at speeds up to 60 mph.

In September 2013, Mercedes-Benz announced that an S-Class sedan had autonomously driven for 62 miles on German city streets in advance of the new model's sale to the public a month later. The car was a full-size 2014 S500 with only slight modifications, and similar technology is available on the production version of the vehicle, as well as on the 2014 E-Class and new 2014 CLA-Class. To keep drivers' hands on the wheel, sensors detect the absence of a human grip, and if none is present the driver-assist systems are disabled.

Besides reducing accidents, driver distraction and road rage, another benefit of self-driving cars is their ability to conserve fuel since a robot typically doesn't have a lead foot. Combine this with an electric vehicle with a limited range such as the Nissan LEAF and the two are a hypermiler's dream. The dream will eventually become reality; Nissan has said that it will have a self-driving car on the market by 2020.

Self-driving cars are coming, but in the future we may not be driving or being driven by what we think of today as cars. The Chevrolet EN-V, for Electric Networked-Vehicle, is a 2-person transportation "pod" that balances on two side-by-side wheels, thanks to gyroscopic technology developed by Segway. Using vehicle-to-vehicle communications and distance-sensing technologies such as radar and ultrasonic sensors, the carbon fiber, Lexan and acrylic-shelled EN-V can be driven manually or autonomously.

EN-V Jiao concept

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