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Smart Special - Smart Cars

Cars are getting smarter by the mile, but are distracted drivers too quick to dismiss efficiency innovations ‘as standard’? Do we really only value exciting gadgetry?

According to the latest survey by leading automotive analysts JD Power, car owners have come to expect additional safety features and are now instead turning their attention to ‘infotainment’ technologies in their vehicles. Parking cameras, assisted lane changing, crash avoidance technology and advanced braking technologies are all welcomed by drivers, but considered almost part of the standard package. “While vehicle owners remain very interested in technologies that make their vehicle safer, they are turning their attention more and more toward features and technologies that allow them to be productive, connected and entertained while in their vehicles,” Mike Van Nieuwkuyk, executive director of global automotive at JD Power and Associates, says. “Given the variety of interests from consumers, automakers will be challenged to pursue technologies that fit their consumer’s interests in order to attract them to their products.”

The way that we interact with our cars is changing, driven by the increased use of mobile devices and advanced automotive technology. The advent of the Apple iPhone back in 2008 gave the mobile phone market a much needed boost and at the same time heralded the advent of convergence between mobile communications and entertainment, a trend that is now being seen in the car.

“Since drivers want to use their smartphones while driving, automotive HMI [human machine interface] has to allow seamless integration of various personal devices based on various software and hardware standards,” Alexander Davydov of Nuance Communications says. “It should enable safe completion of non-automotive tasks that users usually perform on their mobile devices, such as shopping, social networking or communications. In order to help users deal with an ever growing number of tasks of increasing complexity, automotive user interfaces have to be simple, intuitive and flexible.

“Another requirement is the ability to cope with downloadable apps in a safe way, because the same apps are used in the car and on the go using cloud-based profiles. Automotive HMI has to use concepts and technologies that users know from personal devices, where UI innovation happens at a faster pace: buttons and visual indicators are being replaced by motion recognition, touch, speech commands and alerts, voice biometrics and handwriting recognition.”

Affordable mega trends

According to Davydov the automotive sector is being shaped by four mega trends: emission reduction, safety, convenience and affordability. Penetration of infotainment and telematics systems is on the rise with affordable solutions such as Ford Sync and Fiat Blue&Me bringing them to the lower-end segments of the market.

“The first key aspect that is already being widely adopted is connectivity,” Davydov says. “In a connected car the user interface is designed with connectivity in mind, significantly enhancing the possibilities of such technologies as speech synthesis and especially speech recognition.”

Ford Sync - a collaboration between the motor manufacturer and Nuance - is constantly working to improve voice recognition through an evolution toward an embedded system capable of understanding natural speech, and delivering further enhancement using the cloud.

The voice-activated in-car connectivity system will make its European debut in the all-new B-MAX later this year. Its voice technology expertise has played a key role in overcoming challenges including the number of languages and dialects spoken across the region.

The partners are now working towards embedded systems for interpretation of the user’s natural speech, allowing people to intuitively operate vehicle features by speaking as they would to a friend, for a more responsive experience with more voice activation possibilities. This includes researching voice recognition that can understand the user’s intent based on key words or phrases, even when the exact command is not given.

In the long term, Ford also believes cloud computing may play an important role in delivering even more sophisticated voice activation.

The additional computing power and access to external reference databases offered by cloud computing could help future voice-activation systems understand natural speech; provide highly intuitive occupant-to-vehicle interaction with on-board features, systems and devices; and improve voice-enabled content and services, beyond music, entertainment and social media.

“Voice technology has matured beyond simply recognising what has been said, to now include natural language processing that understands what we mean, to access content and achieves specific outcomes,” says Dr Stefan Ortmanns, mobile engineering senior vice president at Nuance. “It’s now at the centre of the next generation of human-machine interactions and deployed in several billions of mobile devices, computers, cars, TVs, healthcare systems and customer care applications.”

The system already features in more than four million vehicles in the US, and will roll out to vehicles such as the Focus, C-MAX, Transit and Fiesta in Europe before the end of the year.

Ford has also developed the Emergency Assistance feature to help alert local emergency service operators after an accident, in the correct language for the region. The activation of an airbag or the emergency fuel pump shut-off prompts the vehicle to initiate an emergency call, using a pre-recorded message, through a Bluetooth connected mobile phone. The message is transmitted in the appropriate language based on the GPS coordinates of the vehicle.

Autonomous cars

One of the newest, and the most expensive, technologies included in the JD Power study was autonomous driving mode; a feature that allows the vehicle to take control of acceleration, braking and steering, without human interaction. While this technology is still being developed and tested, 20 per cent of all vehicle owners say they would purchase it in their next vehicle after learning the estimated market price of $3,000. 

“Consumers are still learning about how autonomous driving technology could be used in their vehicles,” Van Nieuwkuyk adds. “Many owners are sceptical about releasing control and would like to see the technology proved out before they adopt it.”

The advent of the autonomous car came a step closer in late May with a landmark test of a platooning, or car-train system, on public roads near Barcelona, Spain as part of the platoon tests in the SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) project. A road train consists of a lead vehicle driven by a professional driver followed by a number of vehicles, using features such as cameras, radar and laser sensors. The vehicles monitor the lead vehicle and others in their immediate vicinity. By adding in wireless communication, the vehicles in the platoon mimic the lead vehicle using Ricardo autonomous control - accelerating, braking and turning in the same way as the leader.

“We covered 200km in one day and the test turned out well. We’re delighted,” Linda Wahlström, project manager for the SARTRE project at Volvo Car Corporation, says.

The project aims to deliver improved comfort for drivers, who can now spend their time doing other things while driving. They can work on their laptops, read a book or sit back and enjoy a relaxed lunch. Naturally, the project also aims to improve traffic safety, reduce environmental impact and - thanks to smooth speed control - cut the risk of traffic tailbacks.

“Driving among other road-users is a great milestone in our project. It was truly thrilling,” Wahlström adds. “The vehicles drove at 85km/h. The gap between each vehicle was just 6m. During our trials on the test circuit we tried out gaps from five to 15m.”

Sitting in a car just 6m behind another one while travelling at 85 km/h and relying totally on the technology may feel a bit scary, but the experiences gained so far indicate that people acclimatise very quickly.

The three-year SARTRE project has been under way since 2009. All told, the vehicles in the project have covered about 10,000km. After the test on the public roads in Spain, the project is now entering a new phase with the focus on analysis of fuel consumption.

“We’ve learnt a whole lot during this period,” Wahlström adds. “People think that autonomous driving is science fiction, but the fact is that the technology is already here. From the purely conceptual viewpoint, it works fine and road train will be around in one form or another in the future.

“We’ve focused really hard on changing as little as possible in existing systems. Everything should function without any infrastructure changes to the roads or expensive additional components in the cars. Apart from the software developed as part of the project, it is really only the wireless network installed between the cars that set them apart from other cars available in showrooms today.” *

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