Navigant Research Blog

Daimler Takes the Lead in Autonomous Driving

— June 6, 2013

Autonomous driving promises to change the nature of the car and of personal vehicle ownership, and make road travel safer.  The nature of the technology necessitates a slow rollout, and it won’t happen overnight.  But the nature of personal transport is set to change for the first time since the introduction of affordable cars over 100 years ago.  When fully autonomous vehicles can be summoned on demand, there will be less need for personal ownership, and when vehicles are shared, the number of public parking spaces required will also be reduced.

The new driver assistance applications that will become available over the next few years will gradually assume more of the responsibility for steering, speed, and braking, and sensors will remain constantly vigilant for obstacles in the road, something that cannot be said for drivers in general, as accident statistics show.  While Google gets headlines for its pioneering work, Daimler is the first OEM to bring an autopilot system into production.

The 2014 Mercedes S Class, with a production date of fall 2013, illustrates the latest technology that Daimler considers ready for production.  The optional stop-go pilot can steer, brake, and drive automatically, at speeds of up to 30 mph in heavy traffic.  The driver can always retake control instantly.  The car’s braking system detects pedestrians or vehicles in city traffic and applies the brakes automatically to avoid a crash.  A rearward-facing radar system can also recognize a potential rear collision and turn on the rear hazard lights to warn the driver behind.

Scanning the Road, In All Directions

Equipped with the latest image processing technology, the forward-facing camera can not only identify the lane markings for the steering to follow, but can also detect bumps and potholes on the road ahead and automatically adjust the suspension settings accordingly.  Multiple radar sensors (long- and mid-range) scan the road ahead for obstacles, assisted by stereo and infrared cameras.  Short-range radar and ultrasonic sensors watch for low-speed obstacles and assist in parking.

All together, the vehicle has six cameras and six radar sensors to cover the full 360° around the vehicle.  Intelligent Drive is the label Mercedes has given the collection of systems that monitor conditions, warn the driver, and intervene when necessary.  A Daimler spokesman indicated at the press launch that there are additional autonomous features that could be offered, but public awareness and legislation in many countries led the company to delay introduction until the next model upgrade.

Indeed, while the technology is ready to go and exhaustive testing is underway at all of the major OEMs, issues of liability and legality remain to be resolved before the full benefits of autonomous driving can be realized.  Properly implemented, autonomous driving is the only way to reduce the huge number of casualties on roads that result from driver error.

Navigant Research will publish its first report and forecast on autonomous driving in June 2013.  We expect the first vehicles with self-driving options to be on the market by 2020, and the market to grow strongly from 2025.


At Nissan, Progress Looks Backward

— March 4, 2013

The second generation of the Nissan Note will be launched officially at the Geneva Motor Show this week.  B-Class “supermini” vehicles are the biggest segment in the European market, and competition is tough.  Styling and technology features get a lot of attention, as well as performance and fuel economy.  Ford was the first to introduce advanced safety systems to this segment with its 2013 Focus model, offering features such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, blind spot detection, and automatic emergency braking.

One of the new options on the updated Note is the Nissan Safety Shield package, which is composed of lane departure warning, blind spot warning, and advanced moving object detection.  While Ford uses the increasingly popular forward-looking camera along with the latest low-cost radar sensors, Nissan has chosen to implement a similar suite of functions via a camera that faces to the rear.  The camera also contributes to the Around View Monitor feature that gives the driver a bird’s eye view of the car as it is being reversed, thanks to additional cameras at the front and sides.

Warning: Obstacles Ahead

What makes the Nissan system significant is that the rear-looking camera is not simply a passive sensor projecting an image on the screen for the driver to look at but an active monitor that warns the driver if something is not right.  When reversing, a warning beep will sound if an object is detected in the path of the vehicle, thanks to the rapid analysis of the images many times per second.  The same technology is used to monitor the blind spot on either side when the car is traveling forward.  The camera can also track the lane markings to alert the driver of inadvertent drift.  The camera itself has a convex lens that gives it a vision sweep of a little over 180 degrees, and because of its importance to the safety systems it has an automatic cleaning system built in.

The Note’s Around View system confirms that advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) are now available on mass market vehicles.  It was only a few years ago that such features were offered only on the most expensive luxury models.  It also demonstrates that camera technology and the analysis software has advanced to the point where it can replace the more expensive radar sensors in safety systems, thus accelerating the adoption of similar functionality across all vehicles in the near future.

Widespread availability of ADASs on the majority of vehicles is an important stepping stone toward intelligent transportation systems and autonomous driving.  Well-tested software and sensors are critical to more automated driving, and once individual cars are more aware of their surroundings the value of linking them via wireless communications to share data about traffic and potential incidents also goes up.  Pike Research will be taking a closer look at this technology later in 2013.


New Steps Toward Driving Autonomy

— February 19, 2013

Autonomous 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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