We won’t suddenly go, overnight, from driving ourselves around to lying back in fully autonomous vehicles. The introduction of the technology will come in stages as outlined below.
Also known as ‘driving’, or what we’ve done for more than a century now. This, as we know, requires constant driver input. In the future such vehicles might well be known as ‘dumb cars’.
This section encompasses those vehicles that undertake some specific driving tasks, such as steering or acceleration/deceleration assistance. Drivers are still required to perform all active duties, but the vehicle assists via warnings and alerts.
Now we’re getting into the area of true automated features. Using information in their driving environment, these vehicles help with some dynamic driving tasks, including complete control over steering and acceleration/deceleration. The human driver is still required to monitor the external environment in order to take over those functions if necessary and is responsible for the remaining dynamic driving tasks.
Here we move into the realm of the vehicle conducting the external monitoring as well. The car will make decisions based on the conditions, with the human driver expected to be ready to intervene if requested.
Finally we can kick our shoes off and relax. You could even read a book or watch a movie, as the vehicle undertakes all aspects of a dynamic driving task without the need for human intervention. The system will still request human intervention in case of emergency, but will be equipped to respond autonomously should the human not react. This is driving-mode specific, distinguishing it from:
This is full-time operation by the automated driving system of all aspects of dynamic driving under any conditions. There is no need for a human to be present, providing the ability to call your car to you, send it away or order it to park itself.
Of course many vehicles already have a small level of automation, including features such as:
Automated Parking Assist
Toyota was the first company to develop this technology. Using cameras and sensors, the vehicle controls the steering when parallel parking. Some systems require the driver to apply the accelerator and brakes while others are fully-automated. Ford has even developed the ability for drivers to control this function from outside the vehicle.
Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC)
Long-range radar and laser systems measure the speed and distance of other vehicles in the environment, allowing the driver to set desired speeds and maintain a safe distance between the vehicle and the car in front. This system has proved successful in highway driving environments and has been implemented by the likes of Toyota, Volkswagen, Subaru, Audi and BMW.
The system also uses integrated GPS to predict entrance and exit ramps, and assess road conditions.
Automated Highway Driving Assistant
Toyota leads the way here with its Automated Highway Driving Assist (AHDA) technology. This combines ACC with Lane Trace Control, which uses high performance cameras, millimetre wave radar and sensors to detect lane markings and the position of the car. The system automatically adjusts steering angle, driving torque and braking force to maintain road position and reduce driver fatigue.
Autonomous Highway Driving
A number of manufacturers are currently testing technologies that will allow vehicles to take complete control under certain conditions, using sensors to navigate and monitor road conditions. The driver can still intervene at any time but this is the first true stage of conditional automation.
With the current rate of progress we can expect to speed rapidly through the various stages of automation within the next decade or two. It makes for an exciting new world!