The Latest Car-Tech Enroute to Driverless Car
There was a simpler time when car owners were happy if their machines accelerated when gassed and stopped when the brakes were applied, without any hiccups or breakdowns in the process. There was relief if the headlights or horn worked when needed, but that was a secondary consideration. Owners were thrilled to learn how the innards of these mechanical marvels operated and enjoyed the satisfaction of getting their hands dirty while fixing any problems that arose.
Jump forward to the 21st century, and all things mechanical related to an automobile have become secondary, often simply taken for granted. We’ve come a long way to the age of the smartphone. We thrill with the ease of using one rather than fiddling with what’s under the hood. User experience has morphed from a sense of wonder to the need for simplicity.
Increasingly, we expect the car to do the now-mundane task of driving, while we talk and text on our phones or simply catch some much-needed z’s.
And auto-makers are obliging us in our quest for the hands-off car, the driverless vehicle. But, while a fully autonomous mechanical and electronic beast is still a few years away from public use, here are three technologies that bring us closer every day to such an age.
The car as smartphone
The little devices in our hands that we cannot seem to be parted from for even a minute without feeling anxiety now rule our waking – and sleeping – lives by connecting us to people, monitoring our health, soothing us with our music, titillating us with our videos, and counting sheep for us while we sleep.
Why then should our cars not mimic that – especially considering that the law won’t let us use the smartphone while driving. If the car absolutely must separate us from the phone, shouldn’t it at least have the courtesy of acting like one?
You’ve already experienced the joy of connecting your music to the car’s sound system using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto (if you haven’t, you really should – its the only time Siri works perfectly!). In 2018, the world’s most valuable smartphone manufacturer will release the first edition of iOS in the Car, thus taking the most vilified aspect of a vehicle, according to several surveys – the infotainment system – and matching it with the smartphone in ease of use and range of functionality.
While iOS in Android Auto may not be the first attempt by a technology giant to create a great IVI (In Vehicle Infotainment) system – Microsoft has tried and failed (in our humble opinion, of course) with SYNC– it will be the first time that a vehicle’s entire control system will be designed by a smartphone maker. This also means the system will pair easily with your smartphone and download software and firmware updates on the go.
Until then we will need to grit our teeth and soldier on with the currently unstable and ungainly Bluetooth, cable and USB connectivity we use to pair our darling devices to our cars. It doesn’t matter that today’s connectivity options were the revolutions of their time (which was probably less than 10 years ago); our expectations continue to outpace auto-makers’ efforts in this arena.
Hands off, I’m parking
Ask any new driver which part of the licensing test she dreads most and the answer is unanimous: all of us sweat bullets at the thought of reversing the car into a parallel parking slot.
Is it any wonder that this became one of the primary focus areas for the boffins at automobile companies as far back as 20 years ago?
Through multiple iterations, the autonomous parking systems deployed by some manufacturers in mainstream vehicles today are reasonably robust but still require a fair bit of driver intervention at points dictated by the car’s computing systems. We are still a far cry from the ideal situation, where you drive up to the mall entrance, get out of the car, and command it via your smartphone to go park itself and, of course, recall it to the entrance when your retail therapy is completed.
The first vehicle to parallel park on its own was a prototype built in France by the Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et an Automatique (INRIA), setting the foundation for what has now become commercially available in self-parking vehicles.
The basic procedure begins with finding a suitable parking space. Assessment of the best approach for getting into that space is done by considering variables such as the space’s size, the amount of room available for maneuver, and the capabilities of the vehicle to be parked. Humans can (theoretically) do this quickly and without much conscious thought. Computers require a little more training.
Sensors on the front and rear bumpers of a vehicle can be used to detect most of the variables involved. Proximity sensors for park-assist usually use electromagnetic or ultrasonic detection to determine the distance to and size of an object near the vehicle. The more common ultrasonic sensors work in a way similar to the echolocation bats use to find their way around.
Once distances are determined, calculations are made by the parking system’s computer to set the best course of action for parking. Since some control is still usually in the hands of the driver (mostly forward-reverse and braking), adjustments have to be made to accommodate mistakes made by the human involved.
The perfection of this system, in conjunction with some of the technologies described below, are the foundation of the fully autonomous vehicle.
Warning! Car in control!
Since humans are still loathe to let go of their little hand-held screens even while driving at high speeds, auto-makers have devised a whole slew of warning systems that beep, chirp, and chime when the vehicle is on the verge of doing something stupid. Not the human, of course, the vehicle.
The perfection of adaptive cruise control was only the start of the journey toward creating a car that drives itself while the passengers read their newspapers. Today, a long journey on relatively open roads can be performed with minimal foot-work.
Along the way, the modern car has the sensory capability to warn you if you are about to veer out of your lane while you type that all-important text. Combined with adaptive cruise control, the car even takes the hand-work out of the equation on those long drives.
Helping along the journey are pedestrian warning systems that jolt you out of your smartphone-induced stupor if a car-less human is about to step into your path in her own smartphone-induced stupor, or if another driver is about to change lanes without the mandatory glance at his blind spot.
Blind-spot warning systems on your vehicle do their best to prevent you from making rash lane changes, but currently do not have the power to stop you from doing so if you ignore the warning.
As new technologies make more aspects of human intervention redundant in the process of getting from Point A to Point B safely in a powered automobile, they become the precursors to the final state of nirvana – a car that does it all without any input from the most dangerous part of the car: the nut behind the wheel.