Navigant Research Blog

New Steps Toward Driving Autonomy

David Alexander — February 19, 2013

Source: LexusAutonomous driving has crept back into the headlines again after important announcements at CES and NAIAS:

At CES, Toyota displayed its Lexus Advanced Active Safety Research Vehicle, which has similar equipment to Google’s autonomous Prius.  Toyota insists that this is a research vehicle and not destined for production but plans to use it to develop technology for what it calls “assistive autonomy.”

Also at CES, Audi demonstrated its traffic jam assistance and self-parking technology to show visitors.  In slow-moving traffic, a push of a button will get the car to follow the car in front.  Self-parking will allow the driver to get out of the car, which then parks itself in a tight space.

At NAIAS, Continental Automotive announced that it has received approval from the State of Nevada to test its semi-autonomous vehicle on public roads.

Careful to distance themselves from “driverless” cars, the automakers describe their systems as driver assistance rather than driver replacement.  There are many issues to deal with before true autonomous driving comes to the market, not the least of which are liability and insurance.  In an attempt to develop a better understanding of the whole topic, the Southwest Research Institute and TÜV Rheinland Mobility have signed a memorandum of understanding to develop functional standards for the performance of autonomous driving on public roadways.  Having participation from both Europe and North America is a good start toward global standards (which will be essential in the long term), but Asia Pacific must also be represented.

Not So Fast

Google promised in September 2012 that self-driving cars will be available for everyone within 5 years, but the automotive industry doesn’t work that fast.  While it’s technically feasible to have self-driving cars today, as Google has demonstrated, the practicalities of legislative approval, thorough testing, and acceptance by the insurance industry will take time.  Some industry insiders have suggested that 2025 might be a realistic goal.  In the meantime steady progress toward more automated driving features will continue.

One concern is driver acceptance, but the introduction of new features has always been resisted at first.  When blind spot detection (BSD) was first introduced, the majority of drivers were either baffled by the concept or insulted that their driving ability was being questioned.  A recent survey of U.S. consumers showed that BSD is now the most preferred safety feature.  Cruise control was first patented in 1945, but it took nearly 3 decades for it to gain wide acceptance.  Today it’s practically a standard feature, at least in the United States.  Gradual introduction is a practical necessity, but the high-end models compete to be first to market with the latest technology.

The next 10 years will see the broadening availability of more driver assistance features, and the role of the driver will shift from directly controlling the engine, steering, and brakes to being more like a pilot and selecting among various modes, from autonomous through semi-autonomous to manual.  It’s important to remember that driver assistance technology offers great potential for significant societal benefits from automating some aspects of driving, such as fewer crashes and better flow on congested roads.

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