The future of the automobile is here. You only need look in your rear-view mirror. There’s a good chance that one of those cars you see is an Audi or a Subaru or a Ford or a BMW that has an assisted driving feature activated.
That means, on a current Audi A5, a “lane assist” feature that alerts drivers when they are veering over lane demarcations, “active lane assist” that steers the vehicle back into a lane when it detects the car moving over the lines, and “side assist” that detects vehicles coming up in the next lane when the driver signals a lane change – even forcing the car back into its own lane.
In the new Land Rover Discovery, an Autonomous Emergency Braking system spots potential collisions and applies brakes automatically if an accident is anticipated. It has a form of self-driving as well, with an off-road feature called All-Terrain Progress Control, which allows the driver to hand control over to the vehicle when the terrain is particularly difficult. The driver steers while the ATPC takes over all other functions, including braking, applying torque to the wheels, individually, for maximum traction, and controlling the speed.
In the Subaru XV, EyeSight Driver Assist Technology comprises two colour cameras positioned near the rear-view mirror. They monitor traffic movement, and feed the information to an artificial intelligence systems that fine tunes cruise control automatically and keeps an eye on unintended lane changes. It also features Pre-Collision Braking, in effect watching for cars that brake suddenly in front or – that perennial South African road hazard – cars cutting in dangerously.
The new Ford Fusion features the whole bang-shoot of automated safety, from Adapative Cruise Control that slows the car if it detects traffic ahead, to automated perpendicular parking and park-out assist for getting out of tight spots. Cross-Traffic Alert is like having a built-in assistant to warn of approaching traffic when a car is backing out of a driveway or parking spot.
The cherry on top is Pre-Collision Assist with Pedestrian Detection, which warns of potential collisions with both cars and pedestrians. The brakes instantly “precharge” and increase sensitivity for full responsiveness when the brakes are applied – which happens automatically if the driver doesn’t respond to the alarm.
The Volvo CX90 features all of the above, along with City Safety, designed to avoid collisions in slow-moving, stop-and-go city traffic. It brakes automatically, avoiding or helping to reduce the effects of a collision.
Every one of the above is a car I’ve tested on the South African roads. In the automobile industry, science fiction is not fiction anymore.
It’s not a great leap for such features to evolve to fully automated driving as well. The big catch, aside from the law, is that none of them are cheap, and none are aimed at the mass market. Yet.
In cars, future shock is no longer about how much of driving can be automated. It’s about how much of that automation can be built into mass-market cars.
The biggest shock comes when the high-end features like reverse cameras suddenly appear in entry-level cars. The nippy little Ford Fiesta ST2000 may not be a beginner car, but it points the way. It already features rear-view colour cameras for safer reversing, and AvanceTrac, which automatically applies brakes and adjusts engine torque when it detects wheelslip.
The true breakthrough, for the ordinary driver, will come when standard features in all cars include lane-assist and park-assist, as well as the predictive braking systems appearing in the high-end vehicles. That will gradually prepare drivers for their next upgrade: the self-driving vehicle, or at least a significant turn of the wheel closer to that dream.
Laws will have to evolve to allow for many of these changes, but that is already beginning, says Trevor Hill, Head of Audi South Africa.
“Germany will soon change its legislation, then the USA, probably in parallel, and then the rest of the world will follow,” he says. “But you have to have infrastructure, you have to have lines in the road. In Polokwane right now, an autonomous vehicle would end up in the bush. The sensors in the car will need to read the road markings, as well the traffic.
“But this will all happen in time. Once we get this technology into South Africa, we can start to explain to authorities what the benefits are. This will save lives. If you could put the current predictive braking features on trucks and taxis, you would save a lot of lives. But then everyone has to do it, because if one car brakes suddenly and others don’t, you have a problem.
“There are real safety benefits, though. Once costs come down and it becomes standard, most cars will get it. The technology is there; you just have to put it in the cars.”
The current Audi A5, already on South African roads, is a car of the future, available today, and does not need any change in law to be allowed on the roads. Like the Land Rover Discovery and Ford Fusion, it can detect a collision about to happen, with a technology called “pre sense”, which applies brakes automatically. That is just the beginning.
The new Audi A8, revealed in Barcelona a few months ago and due to arrive in South Africa next year, has built in numerous new features that also improve both autonomy and safety, without flouting any laws.
It features a parking space finder, similar to that of the Ford Fusion, which scans for open parking spaces. Chances are that the next model will drive itself to and from parking spaces after it drops you off at the front door of a building. It’s safety features are right out of the future.
“If the car is about to be hit from the side, it will first try to avoid accident. But, if it is unavoidable, the side of the car lifts 8cm so that it exposes the underside of car and distributes the impact, protecting passengers from the direct impact. An artificial intelligence active suspension means electronic actuators on the wheels smooths out potholes, bumps, and rough surfaces.”
It’s not only about safety and comfort, however. Hill presents a fascinating vision for the role of the self-driving car: “With autonomous driving, we want to create a 25th hour for the customer. The hour spent driving can become productive time in the car, in effect giving you an extra hour to get things done.”
The promised delivery date for autonomous vehicles, from most manufacturers, is 2021. It cannot come a day too soon.
- Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.