At this year’s 2015 CES in Las Vegas and 2015 NAIAS in Detroit, the subject of semi or fully-autonomous vehicles was never too far from the headlines. From BMW’s fully-autonomous valet parking system to Nissan’s recently-announced partnership with NASA on autonomous vehicle technology and from Tesla’s fully-prepared auto-pilot capable Model S sedan to Audi sending its self-driving A7 from Los Angeles to Las Vegas without any human input, self-driving cars are tantalisingly close to reality.
But while not everyone likes the idea of jumping into a car and letting it do the driving, we’ve been slowly accepting pieces of autonomous drive technology into our cars for years. Although they may not take over complete control of your car, these technologies form the backbone of any future autonomous car, and you may not even be aware of them.
Here are just five features found in modern cars today which are helping pave the way towards partial or full autonomy in your next car.
For some, parking sensors are nothing more than the annoying beep you hear when putting your car into reverse. For others, they’ve save countless body shop repair bills from having to park daily in super-tight parking spaces. Yet whatever side of the fence you sit on, the technology behind parking sensors are essential to the development of the autonomous car.
These days, there are two main types of parking sensors: ultrasonic sensors and electromagnetic sensors. Both have one primary function: to detect the presence of objects that your car is about to hit.
With an ultrasonic parking sensor system, pulses of ultrasonic waves are emitted from each car-mounted sensor in a similar way to a bat’s echolocation. Too high to hear with the human ear, these pulses of high-frequency audio bounce off nearby objects and back to the sensors. By calculating the time it takes for sound waves to bounce back, the car can tell if an object nearby or far away, representing what it ‘sees’ with either a series of beeps or by lighting up a series of bars on an on-screen display.
An electromagnetic system functions in a similar way, but can work through the plastic that most modern bumpers are made from, preserving the smooth, factory-made look of a car. They work by creating an invisible, weak electromagnetic field around the car at low speeds, sounding an alarm if that field is disrupted by a solid object. The larger and nearer the object, the more insistent the alarm.
In the next few years, parking sensors (and rear-view cameras) are due to become mandatory for all new cars.
Power assisted steering systems — where a hydraulic-based pump supplements steering wheel input with additional torque to make steering a large or heavy vehicle easier — have been a mainstay of the automotive world for many decades.
Save for a few super-light cars like the Smart ForTwo, most cars today come with power steering as standard. What’s more, because electrically-assisted power steering systems don’t impact gas mileage as much, it is quickly replacing hydraulic power steering as the system of choice for most mainstream automakers.
They’re also the steering system of choice in any vehicle that doesn’t use an internal combustion engine all the time, since hydraulic-based power steering systems stop working when the engine is off. As a consequence, most hybrid cars and all electric cars use electrically-assisted steering.
While traditional hydraulic power steering systems — where the hydraulic pump which provides the pressurised fluid needed to provide the steering assistance is run directly by a belt connected to the vehicle’s engine — aren’t easy to integrate with autonomous driving systems, electrical power assistance systems just need an appropriate computer-controlled electrical current in order to become fully autonomous.
Adaptive cruise control, emergency braking
Like power steering, cruise control has existed for decades in its mechanical form, offering drivers a way of keeping a constant speed on long freeway cruises. But as with other parts of the car, cruise control has become ever-more complicated, using electronic rather than mechanical controls to ensure your car’s speed stays constant.
Adaptive cruise control is actually a combination of multiple different systems working together in unison, and shows how autonomous cars of the near future could handle high-speed cruising.
Using a mid-range forward-facing radar, cars with adaptive cruise control can scan the road ahead to make sure that it is clear and safe to drive at the speed selected by the driver. If the car’s radar sensor detects an object in front of it at a distance less than the acceptable minimum distance required to safely stop in an emergency, the cruise control will automatically apply the brakes and slow the car down, accelerating again to the preset speed when it is safe to do so.
In addition to helping drivers keep a safe distance from one another on the road, adaptive cruise control gives the car control of its own braking system, allowing it to actively avoid hitting something or someone and slowing to match the speed of the traffic in front.
Normally, Adaptive cruise control also comes hand in hand with emergency city braking systems, allowing the car to automatically brake if it detects something directly in front of your car while travelling at low speed.
Both are key technologies that are going to be essential in autonomous drive cars of the future, keeping everyone safe and avoiding those rear-end collisions that can cause so much damage to cars and passengers alike.
Lane departure warning system
Designed to help prevent drivers from drifting between lanes, lane departure warning systems work by scanning the road in front of or to the side of the car, looking for the telltale white lines or sidewalk that delineates the edge of the lane.
Cross over the line without signalling first, and the car sounds a series of alarms designed to alert the driver of his or her actions and in some cars, can even help keep your car positioned correctly in the lane by applying just enough torque to the steering wheel to keep your lane position spot on.
In most cars today, lane departure warning systems are passive: instead of taking over control of the car like emergency braking or adaptable cruise control, they provide visible and audible warnings to the driver to alert them of the situation. But as self-driving technology improves and evolves, lane departure warning cameras and side-object detection systems will become part of the necessary 360-degree field of view all autonomous cars will need in able to safely drive their owners down the road.
The final piece of automotive technology we’ve chosen to highlight that will pave the way towards autonomous vehicles is the humble wireless data modem now found in an increasingly large number of cars.
From the early days of OnStar to the fully interconnected world of the Tesla Model S, data connectivity to and from our cars allows future autonomous vehicles the ability to not only know where they are but where everyone else is on the road.
In addition to being able to respond dynamically to traffic situations or emergencies as they occur, the autonomous drive car of the future needs to have the very latest data on infrastructure, responding to temporary closures and road works with ease. Having a permanent wireless data connection makes that not only possible, but far easier.
And of course, then there’s the car’s passengers. Without needing to worry about driving, a decent Internet connection will be a must-have for anyone taking a long-distance autonomous car trip in the future, especially if they have children to entertain.
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