Evolving Autonomous Autos

January 25, 2012

A little over a year ago, I wrote about Google’s research project to develop and test a self-driving automobile.  This was not a totally novel idea; the DARPA Grand Challenge, a prize competition for driverless vehicles, had been running for several years.  Though Google has tested its technology on normal California roads (always with a human back-up driver on board), there are still technical, legal, and cultural obstacles to be overcome before we will be able to sit back and enjoy our coffee while the car drives us to work.

Technology Review reports that a more gradual approach to automated driving technology is being taken by auto manufacturers, especially in Europe.   I’ve written here about a European project to allow communicating vehicles to form up as “road trains” on highways, to improve energy efficiency and safety.  And the automakers have already begun to introduce incremental driving assistance capabilities.

[BMW’s Werner] Huber and executives at other European automakers say the automated driving revolution is already here: new safety and convenience technologies are beginning to act as “copilots,” automating tedious or difficult driving tasks such as parallel parking.

The expectation is that these features will be introduced first on high-end models, then gradually make their appearance on a broader range of cars, depending of course on their reception by customers.  There are models offered now that offer parallel parking assistance, and other capabilities are being offered as well.

For example, for $1,350, people who purchase BMW’s 535i xDrive sedan in the United States can opt for a “driver assistance package” that includes radar to detect vehicles in the car’s blind spot. For another $2,600, BMW will install “night vision with pedestrian detection,” which uses a forward-facing infrared camera to spot people in the road.

Probably one of the marketing goals for these features is to get people more accustomed to the idea of the car “thinking for itself”.  One doesn’t have to look at very many car advertisements to realize that the product is often sold as an extension of the driver, probably not ideal for selling a fully autonomous car.  There are also legal obstacles to be dealt with.  Traffic codes assume, at least implicitly, that a person is in control of the vehicle while it is moving.  There will also be interesting issues of software liability, if it appears that a failure of the automatic system caused a collision.

Still, this is potentially valuable experimentation.   Travel by automobile is a big consumer of fossil fuels, as well as being fairly dangerous (compared to other forms of transport).   Anything that might make it safer and more energy efficient is worth a look.


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