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What Driverless Tech is Already in Your Car?

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The future is upon us. As recently as a decade ago the very idea of self-driving cars remained fanciful. In 2018 that concept is a reality, sort of.

Indeed the connected and autonomous industry has developed at a rate of knots and far quicker than anyone anticipated. Technological advancement has led us to a point where nearly all newly built models boast a score of at least one on the Level of Automation (LOA) scale. It rises to five, in case you were wondering

New technologies are being implemented faster than you can say Lidar Laser System while Google – who else? – has heralded the arrival of Waymo, its own self-styled, self-driving car. More on that later.

So what does it all mean for our roads and the motoring industry as a whole? Early forecasts suggest that by 2030 up to 25,000 accidents could be prevented in the UK as a result of such software. That equates to 2,500 lives being saved in the same time.

On a broader scale, the global economy stands to benefit to the tune of some $7 trillion. As with all of things motoring, it’s big business.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the mod cons you’ll be seeing a lot more of...

Park Assist

As the name suggests, this feature is intended to simplify parking. Those behind the wheel need simply select a button from their dashboard or touch screen – one prompting the vehicle to scan for a nearby and appropriate space. What constitutes an appropriate space? A gap 20% bigger than the car itself, apparently.

Though motorists are still charged with accelerating, braking and changing gears, their cars have cameras and sensors built in, technology that enables it to measure distance accordingly. It’s not all plain sailing of course. A degree of caution is still required; clocking surrounding pedestrians for instance is the driver’s responsibility. Nevertheless a little help goes a long way.

Cross Traffic Alert

Sticking with the parking theme Cross Traffic Alerts gauge when traffic is approaching as you reverse out of a space. Again, audible or visual warnings are forthcoming, ensuring you pull away safely if boxed in at the supermarket.

Auto High Beam

Knowing when and when not to switch to high beam is a conundrum that plagues many motorists. The responsible amongst us are considerate of fellow road users and conscious of dazzling them when doing so. The Auto High Beam setup is one that involves the placement of sensors on rear view mirrors, this with a view to detecting surrounding light sources. The result is an automatic flitting between high and low beam. A great idea in principle it is by no means perfect. There are countless unforeseen hazards after all.

A more refined model is one titled Matrix LED which encompasses several individual lights. When faced with an approaching car a select few will dim, while others continue to shine on sparse sections of the road. A compromise of sorts.

Driver Alert

As the campaign rightly laments, tiredness kills. Anything that guards against it then is surely a bonus. The Driver Alert system sees radar sensors warn motorists when their driving smacks of exhaustion. Clues include erratic steering and wayward changes of lane. Its response is to trigger visual or audio alerts – depicting a cup of coffee upon the dashboard is a favourite of many manufacturers. The reminders will continue until action is taken. An irritating yet invaluable prompt.

Lane Keeping Alerts

Not too dissimilar to the above example, Lane Keeping Alerts rely on forward facing cameras to detect when a driver veers out of lane, even slightly. In most instances warnings come courtesy of dashboard lights and/or alarms though certain models have allowed for assisted steering. The Volvo Pilot Assist is one such example, easing the vehicle back into line. Such intervention is not always welcomed. Indeed the system can prove more of a hindrance on rural roads.

Adaptive Cruise Control

Something we’ve written about previously. ACC interprets information sent to it by radars and sensors placed around the car. These adjust the speed of travel depending on the flow of traffic.

A step on from standard cruise control, this system will accelerate and decelerate accordingly. An Engine Management System reacts to any activity ahead – applying brakes when necessary. Some models even come with a traffic jam assist – applying the same principles to built up areas, helping with congestion.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers report that 6.9% of cars are currently fitted with Adaptive Cruise Control, while a further 29.3% offer it as an option.

Blind Spot Information System

Any driving instructor worth his salt will warn learners about the dangers of their blind spot. A rear facing digital camera that sheds light on exactly what’s occupying that area will then be music to motorists young and old.

Typically positioned within door mirrors, this system detects when a car enters a drivers’ blind spot. In such instances a light will appear in either the door mirror itself or the accompanying A-pillar. By way of a final warning, an alarm will sound should you attempt to pull away regardless. As good as a features of this nature sounds there is, remember, no substitute for the human eye. Check your mirrors.

Autonomous Emergency Braking

Another feature designed to guard against accidents. Radar sensors warn drivers when they are getting too close for comfort. If you leave little to no room for stopping distance Autonomous Emergency Braking will kick in, slowing you down itself if warnings are ignored. A popular feature, it is currently present in 28.4% of cars. A great many campaigners want this number increased and are lobbying for it to be made compulsory.

Traffic Sign Recognition

All too often we drive past a road sign and forget exactly what speed it was permitting us to do. Traffic Sign Recognition technology forgives us such lapses in concentration. Indeed signs are scanned and relayed to the dashboard or infotainment display until another is reached. This is of course a great idea in principle but issues do arise. Temporary road signs for instance, those the system cannot compute, wreak havoc.

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Introducing Waymo: Google’s Self Driving Car

Google embarked upon their self driving car project as far back as 2009. By 2017 they had progressed to a point where tests could be run without a safety driver in situ. How? By investing in technology such as Lidar – a laser range finder placed atop of the motor vehicle.

Packed with no less than 64 beams this device creates 3D images of objects, allowing the car to interpret upcoming hazards. In calculating distance at the same time, Lidar provides a view of up to 200m.

Elsewhere Waymo includes a front camera for immediate vision, radars placed on both the front and back bumpers (facilitating adaptive cruise control) and an aerial so precise it taps into GPS satellites to plot journeys.

Crucially, an interpretation of common behaviour has also been programmed into the car. This means predetermined shape and motion descriptors will enable it to recognise hand gestures / indicators from the likes of cyclists.

Similarly, real life road behaviour has been factored into the design – Waymo will occasionally slow to allow cars out of a junction and – by the same token – move on if they fail to accept the invitation. To be fair, many may be too busy doubting their eyes.

Internal features meanwhile include the likes of tachymeter’s, altimeters and gyroscopes, a combination that paints a precise picture of where the vehicle is at any given time – not to mention a central CPU that collates all of this data and makes sense of it.

We’re some way from Waymo and its equivalent dominating roads but such progress has been made in the last five years that few now doubt that eventuality.

The Future

The next decade will bring with it unforeseen developments. Soon parking may be controlled by a smart phone, cars may interact with traffic lights, we may even see weather reports fed into vehicles and thus impact the way they’re driven.

Eventually however plans need to be made for the world’s busiest cities. Can self-driving cars truly navigate the chaotic streets of New York for instance?

And legal challenges are surely a given. Should an accident occur who is held responsible? Does a computerised car know what to hit if faced with a head on collision?

Perhaps the only certainty is growth. The decision of Apple, IBM and Intel to invest in this sector underlines its potential. Watch this space.

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