An essential component of many a classic sci-fi movie, there has nonetheless been a great deal of real world experimentation with autonomous vehicles for almost a century now. Similarly, discussions on automated highways began in the 1939 New York World’s Fair as part of ‘The World of Tomorrow’. However, it is only recently that these experiments have reached anywhere near fruition.
The progress made by Google in its self-driving technology has been the most widely reported, and the company announced in May that it had begun assembling prototypes of its own self-driving car. However, Google is far from the only player in this field. OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers worldwide are carrying out extensive work that will enable them to put semi-autonomous, and then fully-autonomous vehicles on the roads.
The impact of autonomous vehicles
The biggest advantage of semi-autonomous and fully-autonomous vehicle control will be a significant increase in road safety. Every year, 1.24 million people in the world die due to car crashes. Vehicle crashes remain one of the largest causes of deaths worldwide and cause an even greater number of car-related injuries. According to a recent UN Road Safety Collaboration study, 90% of traffic incidents are caused by human error. Thus, the safety aspects of automated cars move quickly to the fore.
Vehicles that use advanced electronic sensing and processing will also deliver additional tangible benefits, including fuel savings, mobility and convenience, reduced travel time, and more efficient use of roadways.
Since 2005, the adoption of active safety technologies such as anti-lock braking systems (ABS) and electronic braking systems (EBS) have contributed to the steady decrease in the number of automobile crashes. For example, in the US, the total number of fatalities caused through car crashes peaked in 2005 and has declined rapidly since. The steady decline coincides with OEMs adopting electronic stability control (ESC) as a standard feature in the US, and the federal mandate in 2007, which required OEMs to install electronic stability systems on all passenger vehicles manufactured on or after 1 September 2011.
In a three-year study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) between 2008 and 2010, ESC saved more than 2,200 lives in the US. NHTSA research has consistently shown that active safety systems, such as ESC, are effective in helping a driver avoid dangerous crashes. NHTSA also estimates that adoption of ESC alone could save as many as 10,000 lives a year and eliminate approximately 200,000 injuries.
In fact, research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in the US revealed that, if every vehicle on the road were equipped with technology such as forward collision and lane departure, blind spot detection and adaptive headlights, then nearly one-third of all crashes could potentially be avoided.
Active safety technology
Advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) is the term used to describe a set of electronics-based technologies that are designed to aid in safe vehicle operation, help prevent crashes by keeping cars at safe distances from each other, alerting drivers to dangerous conditions and protecting those in the car and on the street from crashes that may occur. ADAS also provides functions that will serve as important elements of computer-controlled autonomous operation in the future. Almost all new vehicles have stability control, anti-lock braking, airbags, occupant detection and various kinds of alarms. Building on these traditional capabilities, active safety technology is evolving through four stages, as outlined below.
The first stage includes passive warning and convenience systems, such as:
- Rear-view cameras
- Radar for blind spot detection,
- Cross-traffic warnings that help with reversing out of parking spaces between larger vehicles.
Slightly more advanced versions may include camera image processing for traffic sign recognition, 360 degree views of the car on the road, in-cabin monitors to alert distracted, inattentive or sleepy drivers and other advanced features.
In the second stage of development, these systems can briefly take active control of the car to assist in parking, prevent backing over unseen objects and avoid collisions by braking or swerving. Sometimes the system actively controls an individual car function, such as adaptive headlamps that automatically adjust to bends in the road ahead.
The third stage involves semi-autonomous operation, when the car takes over driving in certain circumstances; someone must be in the driver’s seat ready to resume control. One example is traffic assistance or highway lane self-driving, including adaptive cruise control, which changes speeds automatically to keep pace with traffic on expressways. Both adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist will be required for expressway driving to keep the car centred in the lane and at a safe distance from other drivers. Lane keep assist is another example of the use of a front or rear camera to guide the car along the middle of the lane. Park assist will take full control during parking in crowded parking lots and garages. Additionally, in-cabin driver monitoring, when detecting an incapacitated driver, may initiate a fully automatic stopping manoeuvre to pull a car to the side of the road and stop it safely.
When cars move to fully autonomous operation, the driver seat may be unoccupied. This will herald the onset of ‘ghost cars’ that could be used by a child, a disabled or elderly person who is unable to drive.
The evolution to driverless vehicles will involve merging existing safety systems with new ones. Today, most new cars appear with passive and even some active ADAS safety features, and availability is increasing rapidly.
For instance, according to latest OICA statistics, it can be estimated that:
- Adaptive cruise control is available in almost 25% of new cars worldwide
- Side object detection or blind spot detection: more than 20%
- Lane departure warning or lane keep assist: nearly 20%
- Autonomous park assist: 10%
Adoption rate of autonomous vehicles
As with almost all innovations, ADAS features tend to be introduced in high-end products first, where cost is less-closely scrutinised by the end-user, before migrating down to medium-priced vehicles. There are some examples of ADAS technology being pioneered in commercial vehicles because these are features especially valuable for safe operation, such as rear-view cameras.
Reverse assist cameras and sensors notwithstanding, the systems with the highest rate of adoption globally currently are blind spot detection, forward collision warning and lane departure warning. But even for these three systems, the global penetration rates in 2012 were merely 2.1%, 2.3% and 2.6% respectively, which much of the input coming from European OEMs.
While ADAS features are steadily finding acceptance today, moving to semi-automated and fully automated operation faces social, legal and technological challenges. The issues of potential car crashes will have to be addressed by state laws and insurance companies. Who will be at fault – the consumer or the manufacturer? Add to this a period of adjustment, as drivers become accustomed to the changing roads. There will be a large gap between cars equipped with the new systems and older cars that are still on the road. Currently, in the US, the average age of vehicles has reached an all-time high of more than 11 years, and in 2013, it’s estimated that the US car parc was around 250 million. By 2020, the forecast is for 275 million cars and the vast majority of vehicles within the parc are unlikely to have any ADAS installed. If these legal and social issues require time to resolve, so do the challenges facing technology.
Cars require electronic safety systems to be small, light-weight, inexpensive and offer high performance. The trunks of many of the current self-driving prototype cars are packed with advanced electronics that are worth much more than the host vehicles. To change these experimental cars into production units will require reliable and powerful electronics that are much smaller in size.
Equally important are system safety and reliability – not only for the benefits of safe driving, but also because crashes that are caused by electronic failure can delay innovation and the acceptance of new technologies. Reliability is especially critical in an automobile, where high temperatures, large voltage swings and vibrations can unduly stress electronic components. Systems will need to have a failure recovery mode that remains safe to persons in and around the vehicle if something goes wrong.
These design challenges will take time to address and further advancements in technology are required in order to make a vehicle road-ready. Realistically, fully-autonomous vehicles that are ready for sale will not make an appearance for the next ten years or so. However, we can expect to see a steadily increasing number of vehicles offering some level of assisted driving to help make them safer while reducing fuel consumption and adding convenience for drivers.