Further tests on autonomous cars at the Thatcham Centre

Intelligent cars

Fully autonomous vehicles for everyday use in the future are fantasy, but improved driver aids are evolving and here to stay says E&T.

Over the past 10 years, automatic control systems in cars have made a huge contribution to safety on our roads. By taking on some of the burden off the human controller, and reacting faster and more precisely, they have allowed a growing number of road users to mitigate the effects of accidents or avoid them altogether.

They’ve brought with them a shift in emphasis from ‘passive’ safety, as in protection from an accident, to ‘active’ safety, as in prevention, with carmakers having a stated vision of a ‘zero-accident’ future in their cars.

According to a cross-section of industry insiders, by 2020 a typical new car will be even safer and more convenient to drive, offering the driver better information about the external environment via integrated systems of varying levels of autonomy.

“By 2020, a key technology will be automatic emergency braking,” says Matthew Avery, crash and safety research manager at the UK’s Motor Insurance Repair Research Centre (better known as Thatcham), which carries out research into improving vehicle safety. “The technology will appear initially in high-end models then cascade down, as happens now with electronic stability control, for example.”

Like any control technology, sensors play a vital role, and systems exploiting a technique called ‘sensor fusion’ - merging, say, video with radar to provide a more detailed view of the immediate environment - are in the pipeline.

One early indicator here is technology being introduced this year by Volvo, called Pedestrian Safety, in its new S60. The system consists of a radar unit in the car’s grille, a camera behind the inside rear-view mirror and a central control unit. The radar detects objects and measures the distance to them; the camera determines what type of objects they are and allows the system to monitor pedestrian movement patterns.

The system is a step on from Volvo’s existing City Safety technology, which warns drivers of an impending collision with another vehicle and will brake the car automatically if the driver fails to respond.

Of course, Volvo is not the only carmaker working on this technology - according to Ingobert Lassrich, global active safety manager at General Motors, “all OEMs are doing it”.

Mercedes-Benz, for example, sees the concept in terms of inherent reliability. “Although, individually, the chance of an error with each system is rare, the likelihood that both will simultaneously fail to recognise the same object or erroneously ‘create’ an obstacle is much rarer still,” it says. “This gain in sensor accuracy allows increasingly ‘responsible’ tasks to be assigned to sensor-based systems.”

Thatcham’s Avery says another sensing technique to watch for in the future will be stereo camera imaging, as the parallax effect does away with the need for radar systems, which are also more expensive. Mercedes, again for example, has been working on such a system, developing algorithms to analyse the video feed and allow coloured pixels to be displayed on a greyscale image according to the distance of objects from the camera - green, orange and red for far away, middle ground and directly in front.

Driver support

Another key emerging set of technologies, says Avery, comes under the heading of driver support or assistance. Toyota, for example, already offers such a system, which it describes as, “helping the driver in basic driving tasks... reducing the driver’s mental and physical load [to make] it possible for the driver to react in the best way possible whenever the risk of an accident is present.”

It’s perhaps here that some of the most intriguing possibilities lie for the typical car of 2020, as it brings with it scope for control and automation across entire traffic networks. One recent system that offers a pointer here - again, from Mercedes - is Predictive Cruise Control (PCC), unveiled in March 2009. Aimed at least initially at the haulage industry, it automatically adjusts a truck’s speed along its route, using GPS and digitised 3D map data of the route to adjust engine output and gear ratio in line with approaching uphill and downhill gradients.

Another key area, according to Avery, will be Intelligent Speed Adaptation, which constantly monitors a vehicle’s speed and the local speed limit, and takes action when the vehicle is detected to be exceeding the speed limit.

This would be either by warning the driver to take action or by intervening automatically to reduce the vehicle’s speed.

Inappropriate speed is one of the top three killers on our roads, says Avery, so ISA is eyed with keen interest by road safety experts. Governments have tended to baulk at this degree of control over its citizens, however, so at the moment the technology remains at the trial or prototype stage.

Also likely to be key in the future, he says, is the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS). On a broader scale than ISA, but encompassing it, ITS is a series of efforts aimed at cutting traffic congestion, journey times, vehicle wear and fuel consumption.

Some countries and cities have already adopted elements of the technology - Chile and Australia, for example, use it for electronic toll collection (ETC); London and Stockholm are among those using it for congestion charging; and Japan has installed sensors on its highways to notify motorists that a car is stalled ahead. As a result, international standards are emerging, notably DSRC and 802.11.x WAVE for ETC.

Essential to all this will be the need for vehicles to communicate and exchange information with each other and the infrastructure. As Volvo puts it, “In principle, a future Volvo will be able to ‘speak’ to an oncoming vehicle, potentially communicating: “You and I are about to collide head-on. If our drivers don’t react we have to do something to avoid danger.”

Integrated safety management

The major challenge, Volvo says, is to find a common language between all vehicles and the infrastructure. On this, head of safety strategy at Volvo Cars, Jan Ivarsson, says, “We believe the key is to use communication systems that are already available for other purposes. Adding traffic safety communication to this existing architecture is far more sensible than trying to invent and agree on a completely new ‘language’.” Volvo won’t be drawn, however, on what that common existing ‘language’ might be.

What is generally agreed is that these discrete systems and technologies will undergo integration. Toyota has started promoting its Integrated Safety Management Concept (ISMC), which will combine driver support with various active and passive safety systems. And in the longer term, Volvo says, “The auto industry will see an integration of autopilot-type support systems similar to those now in industries such as aviation and the process industry.”

The prospect of fully autonomous cars, however, is unlikely. “Car driving is an emotional thing,” says Markus Armbrust, manager of advanced driver assistance and active safety systems at GM. “Drivers will not want to give up all the fun, so it’s not GM’s intention to make a fully autonomous car.”

This appears to be a common view among car makers. As Avery says, “I don’t know any manufacturer who thinks we’ll ever get to fully autonomous driving - people will never want it.”

Instead, car makers are working towards systems that carry out some functions autonomously but which are ultimately under driver control, as in Volvo’s autopilot scenario, and which can also be switched off - as happens now with some traction control systems on performance cars.

The notion of an ‘autopilot’ implies issues of redundant back-up systems, however, and here opinions vary. Avery says, “They’d be too costly, and there’d be no need for them as they wouldn’t be safety-critical systems.”

GM’s Lassrich has a contrasting view. “While autonomous systems will remain an option that can be switched off if, say they’ve been damaged in an accident, redundancy will still be necessary to give greater availability of system functionality. But there’ll be redundancy only in those systems with critical functions.”

This acknowledges that, despite the vision of an accident-free future, people will still have them, and one initiative to address this issue - at least in the EU - is eCall, the pan-European in-vehicle emergency call system.

Its aim is to enable all vehicles in Europe - regardless of their make, country of registration or location - to send a “distress” signal to the nearest point of emergency services. The in-vehicle unit will be either an embedded GSM-type unit or cellphone with Bluetooth - there’s no final decision here yet - and by 2020 the aim is that 92 per cent of all eCalls should reach the emergency services.

If there’s one thing that is certain about the cars of 2020, however, it is that they will be packed with technology. As GM’s Armbrust says, “It’s our children who’ll be the drivers of 2020, and what they’ll be asking for is just more technology.”

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