Imagine the scene: You're driving your car to an office building in New York City, five minutes from a job interview. No worries. You have already dialed into the car's memory the parking garage where it's going to stay, and prepaid the bill. You shut the door. And off it goes. Driverless. And the chances of the car getting into an accident while it travels five or six treacherous city blocks are less than if the hopeful job applicant had tried to park it himself under time pressure.
Does it sound too good to be true? A sign of the end of civilization as we know it? Too far into the future to care? It depends on whom you ask. But some researchers, engineers, and auto companies believe that such automation is not only on the way to becoming commonplace in the next 20 years, but essential to reducing the carbon footprint of vehicles from the U.S. to China and everywhere else. Oh, and as the technology necessary to achieve the "autonomous" car arrives in stages every few years — some of it is already here, in options such as electronic stability control and blind-spot detection — it promises to sharply reduce traffic fatalities.
'Better than humans'
That's why Nady Boules is so enthusiastic about the prospects of putting technology into vehicles that will change the way we drive and even think about personal transportation. He is director of General Motors' electrical and integration laboratory, and thus is at the center of the automaker's research into what technology is possible and how well consumers might embrace it. "All of this will be made possible and practical by use of computers, sensors, and radio transmitters, and I think we are coming to realize that they can operate a vehicle or even a plane better than humans can behind the wheel," says Boules.
For now, GM can claim bragging rights among automakers for advancing autonomous driving. Last November, a Chevy Tahoe nicknamed "Boss," engineered by a team drawn from GM, Continental Teves, Caterpillar, and Carnegie-Mellon University, beat out 85 other teams and entries for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, Urban Challenge. The Pentagon sponsored the competition to develop an autonomous fighting vehicle that will keep as many human war-fighters off the battlefield as possible. You have heard of "drone" fighter and intelligence-gathering planes? The DOD wants tanks and other vehicles that don't even need to be operated by remote control, let alone humans.
How do the vehicles work without even remote control? It takes a combination of technologies.
Electronic stability control: This technology, which now comes or will soon come standard in most vehicles, improves a vehicle's handling by detecting and preventing skids. When ESC detects loss of steering control, the system automatically applies individual brakes to help "steer" the vehicle where the driver wants to go. Braking is automatically applied to individual wheels, such as the outer front wheel to counter oversteer, or the inner rear wheel to counter understeer. Some ESC systems also reduce engine power until control is regained.
Adaptive cruise control: This is similar to standard cruise control in that it maintains the vehicle's preset speed. However, unlike conventional cruise control, ACC can automatically adjust speed in order to maintain a proper distance between vehicles in the same lane. This is achieved through a radar headway sensor, a digital signal processor, and a longitudinal controller. If the vehicle ahead of you slows down, or if another object is detected, the system sends a signal to the engine or braking system to decelerate. Then, when the road is clear, the system accelerates back to the set speed. GM's Cadillac models and Buick Lucerne now offer it as an option, as do Mercedes-Benz, Infiniti, and Lexus.
Blind-spot detection: This system — offered by Cadillac, Buick, Volvo, Mercedes, and other makes — watches the surroundings of the car with cameras, sensors, and radar, and lets the driver know by way of a light on the side-view mirror that a car is hovering in the blind spot.
Lane-departure warning: If the car drifts out of the lane, one system will vibrate the steering wheel, alerting the driver, who may be falling asleep. Another kind of system will also send a message to the steering wheel to steer back into the lane. This is expected to be available as early as 2011 as an option offered with other systems, such as adaptive cruise control.
Collision mitigation: This system, like one developed by Honda Motor and offered in Acura models, determines the likelihood of a collision based on driving conditions, distance to the vehicle ahead, and relative speeds. It uses visual and audio warnings to prompt the driver to take preventive action. It also initiates braking to reduce the vehicle's speed. When a collision is anticipated, the seatbelt retracts in anticipation of impact.
Each of these technologies can stand alone. But they're also designed to be added on to and integrated with one another over time, says GM's Boules. The "Boss" SUV was packed with thousands of dollars of advanced equipment and software that's not yet commercially available, such as an enhanced global positioning system, radar and sonar, and radio transmitters. On the test course it had to maneuver around vehicles driven by humans, as well as other driverless vehicles.
At a four-way stop with another autonomous vehicle, the Boss and its fellow "car-bot" communicated with one another, negotiating which would go first. "They are more polite than people," says Boules.
Price dampens consumer enthusiasm
Polite or not, people have to buy into these technologies if they're going to catch on. According to the recently completed Emerging Technologies Study, conducted each year by J.D. Power and Associates, there's a lot of interest in the individual systems that will make autonomous driving possible: 76 percent of those surveyed are interested in blind-spot detection; 74 percent want backup assist; 62 percent want a collision mitigation system; 60 percent want adaptive cruise control, and 46 percent want lane-departure warning. However, those percentages drop a bit when price tags are suggested for each system.
The $1,300 GM "Driver Awareness Package," offered on the Cadillac CTS and DTS and Buick Lucerne, includes lane-departure warning, blind-spot detection, and heads-up instrument-panel display. So far this year, 5 percent of CTS sedan buyers have opted for the package.
J.D. Power's Mike Marshall, who oversees the Power study, says drivers will need time to get used to turning more and more control of the car over to computers and sensors. "Even I held my foot over the brake for a while before I trusted adaptive cruise control to do it for me, and I know more than most about how this stuff works," says Marshall.
The bigger payoff in having drivers spend a few thousand dollars to embrace autonomous vehicles is the huge improvements they promise in safety and fuel economy. About 43,000 people a year are killed in traffic accidents, including motorcycle accidents and pedestrians hit by moving cars. If every car had electronic stability control, for instance, fatalities would drop by about 10,000, according to estimates by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. If all drivers wore safety belts (about 81 percent do today), another 7,000 lives would be saved.
"The number goes down with each system to the point where [fatalities] would be so few that when it happened, it would really be an oddity," says Boules.
How could car-bots that drive themselves be more energy efficient? Vehicles would be so safe that automakers could dramatically reduce the weight of cars and trucks by eliminating a lot of steel, bumpers, etc. Even airbags eventually could be eliminated. Much more of the vehicle could be made from plastics and other synthetics, even recycled paper and other cellulose-based material. With weight reduction comes fuel economy. A minivan that gets about 19 miles per gallon today could be made to weigh less than a Honda Fit, which gets more than 34 mpg. And the Fit could be lightened up enough to get 45 mpg or better.
Here is the kicker: Older people will have the greatest incentive to embrace the newest technology, a reversal of the usual trend with emerging technology. As baby boomers age into their 70s and 80s, living longer thanks to drugs, artificial joints, heart valves, and the like, they will want to continue driving as long as possible. The biggest beef against elderly drivers today is that their reflexes and eyesight deteriorate before their desire to drive their own cars.
With an autonomous car that can be driven safely on autopilot, it's the car's eyesight and reflexes that will matter more than the driver's.