Progress Report: Driveless Cars

By Bradley Iger

February 11, 2014

The current popular line of thinking dictates that soon, and in a fairly sudden paradigm shift, driveless cars will be among us, carting us from place to place with little or no input from the driver, a la the Google car. The reality of driveless car technology is that most of its implementation will likely be rolled out gradually through embedded features on your everyday vehicle which will provide different aspects of driving assistance. You might not realize it, but some of the fledgling steps of this technology can probably already be found in your current daily driver.
Early Stages
As early as the 1920s, engineers began tinkering with the concept of the driverless car. However, it wasn't until 1978 with the introduction of the anti-lock braking system by Mercedes-Benz as an option on the S-Class that we first got a taste of electronic driving assistance in mass-produced vehicles.  While it's true that ABS technology requires driver input to function, the system does in fact perform a task that previously would have been the responsibility of the driver - preventing the wheels from locking up under hard braking, which can cause instability and the increased possibility of a crash.
Roughly a decade later, the mass rollout of traction control and electronic stability control innovations by BMW and Mercedes-Benz provided the next step in automated driving assistance. Traction control allowed the car to sense loss of traction to particular wheels and reduce torque and/or provide braking assistance to prevent wheelspin, while electronic stability control applied similar concepts to help to prevent lateral slippage which could cause a spin. Perhaps crude by today's standards, these systems none the less continued to inch us toward the driverless car, and provided the first glimpse into autonomous driving technologies which could function without the need for the driver to specifically call upon them.
Current Technologies
While vehicles like the Google car tend to grab both headlines and the imaginations of the motoring public, if the bevy of autonomous driving technologies currently on offer in modern vehicles is any indication of the future, it's unlikely that we'll see an overnight shift to this kind of motoring. Instead, it's more probable that the current symphony of different computer-controlled driving assistants will continue to add voices to their chorus. In the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has established a classification system which separates the amount of driver involvement into different levels:
Level 0: The driver completely controls the vehicle at all times.
Level 1: Individual vehicle controls are automated, such as electronic stability control or automatic braking.
Level 2: At least two controls can be automated in unison, such as adaptive cruise control in combination with lane keeping.
Level 3: The driver can fully cede control of all safety-critical functions in certain conditions. The car senses when conditions require the driver to retake control and provides a "sufficiently comfortable transition time" for the driver to do so.
Level 4: The vehicle performs all safety-critical functions for the entire trip, with the driver not expected to control the vehicle at any time. This can include unoccupied cars.
The most advanced modern vehicles currently exist in a space somewhere between Level 2 and Level 3, with companies like Volvo, BMW and Mercedes-Benz on the forefront of the various driverless car technologies. Some of the more notable features you can find on cars available today include the following:
Parking Assist: Available on many different vehicles ranging from the Lexus LS460 to the Ford Focus, using sonar-like sensors and cameras installed on various parts of the vehicle, the system determines how to parallel park the vehicle without coming in contact with the surrounding objects and then proceeds to do so, ideally without any input from the driver.
Adaptive Cruise Control: This system automatically adjusts the speed of travel based on its determination of the distance between your vehicle and the one traveling in front of you by the use of radar sensors mounted on the front of the vehicle, allowing the vehicle to maintain a safe driving distance without the intervention of the driver. Offered in some form by nearly every major automotive manufacture today, adaptive cruise control can be found on vehicles ranging from the Bentley Continental GT to the Honda Accord.
Lane Departure Assist: We recently got a chance to try Volvo's Lane Keeping Assist feature firsthand when we drove the 2015 Volvo S60. While some lane departure systems simply offer a warning if the system detects the vehicle unintentionally drifting into another lane, Volvo's Lane Keeping Aid will actually take control of the steering wheel and point the car back into the center of the lane.
Collision Avoidance System: Operating in a similar manner as the adaptive cruise control system, collision avoidance systems use radar, laser and camera technologies to detect an oncoming collision. Depending on the system, if an imminent collision is detected, the vehicle will either warn the driver or attempt to avoid the collision by autonomously applying the brakes and/or steering to avoid the object. Subaru's system in particular receives high marks, having recently entirely avoided both a 12 mph and 25 mph collision during IIHS comparison testing - the only system to have done so. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety notes that Cadillac and Volvo systems also received high marks as well.
Future Tech
It goes without saying that a massive amount of research and development in driverless car technology is currently underway across the automotive industry. Google expects to have its version of autonomous car tech officially on the road by 2018, while Tesla Motors promises vehicles that will do 90% of the driving per trip as soon as 2016.
BMW is already showing off performance applications of driverless car technology with the driverless drift car they showcased at CES in January, which is able to perform perfect powerslides with no intervention by the driver. The US military is also getting in on the act as well, having recently announced its driverless military vehicles, which are able to transport supplies through combat zones and dense urban terrain without the need for onboard personnel who could be subject to IED ambushes otherwise.
To further improve the reliability and efficiency of such systems for public use, the ability for vehicles to send and receive positioning data from the vehicles around them is crucial. To help foster the development of this technology, the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently announced that they're designing the initial framework for vehicle to vehicle communications standards which should help foster automotive manufactures' introductions of the technology in the near future.
As cars are able to gather more information about the environment around them without having to rely on cameras and visual sensors, it's likely that the concept of a nearly-autonomous will become a much more feasible possibility. In the meantime, while we may not see robo-cars in our immediate future, the continuous march toward vehicle autonomy will surely continue by way of the steady incremental features that continue to roll out with each new model year.