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There was a time when sophisticated driver assist systems were the realm of luxury cars. The reason is simple, really. The cost of any new tech innovation is high, and it’s easiest to bury this cost in higher end vehicles offered at a premium price. It was thus with many innovations we now take for granted in our cars like air bags and anti-lock braking. These days, the most desired driver assist and advanced safety systems are pretty much standard fare in most new models.

We were impressed years ago when Honda launched its ‘Safety for Everyone’ program and made its latest safety innovations standard fare on all its vehicles. The auto industry as a whole has followed suit, and now even the most sophisticated systems can be found on entry-level models, increasingly as standard equipment or as available options. While drivers of premium vehicles may still be the first to experience the latest new twist operating silently behind the scenes as they drive, you can be assured the technology will filter down to all models over time.

There are reasons for that because safety is always on the minds of new car buyers. The availability of systems that keep drivers and their families safe on the road, or at least as safe as possible, are highly desired. Automakers know this. Active and passive safety offer a competitive advantage in new car sales, right alongside other traditional touchstones like value, style, dependability, efficiency, and performance. If a new and highly-desired feature is introduced by one brand’s vehicles, there’s no doubt you will be seeing it offered in competitive models soon enough. There’s too much at stake for automakers not to emphasize safety, just as they emphasize electrification, efficiency, and environmental performance in their new model vehicles.

These days, technology is an active participant in our driving experience, constantly looking to warn us of unsafe conditions and offer alerts, and sometimes even initiate last-minute control to avoid an imminent collision. Their importance can’t be overstated. In the early years of driver assist systems, there were claims and assumptions regarding their promise for preventing potential collisions and saving lives. Now there is actual data to support this.

Recently, GM partnered with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute to study the real-world effect its driver assist, active safety, and advanced headlight features were having in preventing or lessening various types of crashes. The study involved data from some 3.7 million GM vehicles across 20 models, making use of police crash report databases from 10 states. Comparisons were made involving vehicles equipped with advanced active safety features and others without this functionality.

The results showed that driver assist systems can make a dramatic difference in eliminating or mitigating crashes. Automatic emergency braking with forward collision alert was shown to reduce rear-end striking crashes by 46 percent. Lane keep assist with lane departure warning reduced lane departure crashes by 20 percent, with lane change alert and side blind zone alert bringing a reduction of 26 percent in lane change crashes.

Even advanced lighting made a difference in driving safety. Here, high-intensity discharge headlights brought a 21 percent reduction in nighttime crashes involving pedestrians, bicyclists, or animals. In addition, advanced headlight systems that automatically turn high beams on or off in response to surrounding conditions delivered a 35 percent reduction. When combined, the two lighting systems resulted in a 49 percent crash reduction.

Clearly, automobiles have become more complex over time. In their early years, an automobile’s electrical system was limited to fundamental functions like a starter, generator, headlights and taillights, instrumentation, and an audio system. Over the years this grew more extensive, including everything from navigation, electric-assist steering and braking, electronic transmission control, electronic ignition, anti-lock braking, an array of airbags, and advanced emissions controls.

Today’s more sophisticated automobile integrates all this and more, from active safety assist systems and real-time traffic navigation to semi-autonomous driving, all enabled by on-board computers. Industry experts point out that today’s vehicles are often equipped with hundreds of controllers and sensors, and dozens of on-board computers (electronic control units, or ECUs), generating tens of gigabytes of data every hour. It’s expected that the coming generation of fully autonomous vehicles could generate upwards of 30 terabytes every day.

Supporting the electronics that process, analyze, and activate, the array of cameras, radar, and LIDAR sensors strategically and discretely positioned around a connected car ‘see’ vehicles, objects, and people ahead, around, and behind. These feed information to on-board systems that enable everything from the view seen in a back-up camera to determining the speed of a car in front of you, allowing adaptive cruise control to adjust your speed to avoid overtaking the vehicle ahead.

These sensors are constantly evolving and improving, a necessity as we head toward fully-autonomous driving. While LIDAR continues to be a favored system by automakers, other innovations are in the works. One example is next-generation radar systems. Until now, vehicle radar has been limited to capturing just speed and direction, which is one of the reasons why vehicles use multiple sensor types for their driver assist and semi-autonomous driving features. Now, the newest long-range radar designs will determine an object’s speed, range, direction, and elevation, even at higher speeds and under challenging lighting or weather conditions.

Evolution is a hallmark of life, and it seems, of driving. Even as our cars are getting more complex in every sense as they adapt to modern life, they are also getting smarter…and safer. All that technology is delivering much more than the comfort, performance, entertainment, and driving pleasure we’ve come to expect from modern vehicles over time. We now benefit from a more confident driving experience and enhanced safety on the road as well, with technologies like those described below serving as our copilot.

ADAPTIVE CRUISE CONTROL: As a stand-alone system or as part of semi-autonomous driving systems, ACC works like conventional cruise control with the addition of sensing technology that determines the speed and distance of the car ahead. It modifies your set cruise speed to avoid overtaking that vehicle. Many systems can bring your vehicle to a full stop if needed. Some advanced systems even reference map data to anticipate upcoming curves, roundabouts, toll booths, and more, then automatically reduce speed accordingly.

AUTOMATIC EMERGENCY BRAKING: Coupled with advance warning of unsafe closing speed or other immediate hazards, this system will automatically apply emergency braking to help avoid or mitigate a collision. Rear and pedestrian AEB is also offered as part of this system.

AUTONOMOUS DRIVING: Sometimes confused with fully ‘self-driving’ capabilities not yet here or approved, to  degrees, today’s semi-autonomous systems can help keep a vehicle centered in its lane, pace a vehicle ahead at a safe distance, and often bring your vehicle to a full stop in gridlocked traffic, then resume driving when traffic in your lane is moving again. Some systems identify the pressure of hands on the steering wheel to allow continuing use of a semi-autonomous driving system, while others, like Cadillac, use a strategically-mounted camera that monitors a driver to confirm they are paying attention to the road ahead.

BLIND SPOT MONITORING: This system alerts a driver of vehicles in its blind spots to increase safety when changing lanes, passing, or being passed.

FORWARD COLLISION WARNING: Audible and visual warnings are provided to alert a driver of the potential of a forward collision. Some systems also provide brake pulsing as a further warning to gain a driver’s immediate attention.

HEAD-UP DISPLAY: A HUD projects driving information projected ahead of a driver’s view, sometimes as simple as mph but often providing info on various driver assist functions including turn-by-turn navigation.

LANE DEPARTURE WARNING: This system provides audible and visual warnings if your vehicle strays outside of its lane when a turn signal is not activated.

LANE KEEP ASSIST: Taking over after a lane departure warning, this function provides varying degrees of steering input to help maintain lane position.

NIGHT VISION: Using infrared sensing technology, night vision displays an enhanced view of the road ahead that helps identify pedestrians, animals, or other hazards that may be beyond the view of a car’s headlights.

PARK ASSIST: This system enables a driver to select automated parallel, and sometimes perpendicular, parking functionality. It uses sensors to identify an open parking space of suitable size and the position of parked vehicles, then controls steering angle to automatically guide your vehicle into the space. Many systems require a driver to control braking, acceleration, and gear position, while others handle all functions automatically.

REAL-TIME TRAFFIC: Navigation systems that integrate real-time traffic information are valuable in saving time, fuel, and maximizing driving range with their ability to reroute around traffic jams and construction projects.

REAR BACK-UP CAMERA: Now found on a wide range of vehicles, a view to the rear is shown in a dashboard display or rear-view mirror when a driver shifts into reverse, often including grid lines depicting a driver’s angle of approach and relative distance from nearby vehicles or objects. Audible warnings are provided when objects are too close or a potential collision with an object, vehicle, or pedestrian is detected.

REAR PARK ASSIST: At low speed while in reverse, sensors detect objects and a potential collision, providing a warning brake pulse and then bringing your vehicle to a stop.

SURROUND VIEW CAMERA: This technology uses multiple cameras strategically positioned on a vehicle to provide a ‘birds’-eye’ perspective of the vehicle and its immediate surroundings.

There’s a lot of talk these days about self-driving cars and their place in our driving future. While we are likely to see autonomous vehicles plying our highways in the years ahead, in the meantime many of the ‘smart’ technologies integral to self-driving cars are available in vehicles you can buy today. Focusing on accident prevention and driver convenience, their appearance is usually in higher-end vehicles first before they filter down to more affordable models, driven by popularity, major cost reductions, and government mandates. Fortunately, many new capabilities can be added easily by writing software that uses sensors, cameras, and other hardware already installed on a vehicle. Automakers can use the Internet of Things (IoT) to add this software over the air without requiring owners to take vehicles back to the dealer, just like Windows and Apple update your computer and smartphone. Yes, it’s a brave new world.

DRIVER DROWSINESS DETECTION helps prevent accidents. Fatigue can be measured by monitoring eye activity, changes in driving style determined by steering input, or a lane departure alert system showing a driver is often drifting from his lane. In more sophisticated systems drowsiness could be identified with sensors monitoring brain activity, heart rate, skin conductance, or muscle activity. A visual or audible warning may be issued or the driver’s seat may vibrate. More sophisticated monitoring techniques may also detect a medical emergency and call 911.

adaptive-cruise-controlBLIND ZONE ALERT systems typically use radar or ultrasonic sensors on both sides of the vehicle to “look” for cars, trucks, and motorcycles in side blind zones. These systems alert a driver with a flashing light in the side view mirrors and often with an audible sound or vibration of the steering wheel. If the turn signal in not activated to indicate you’re planning to change lanes, the mirror warning light glows to show there’s a vehicle in your blind spot but does not flash.

ADAPTIVE CRUISE CONTROL augments a vehicle’s standard cruise control system to enhance safety. Once selected, it automatically adjusts vehicle speed to maintain a safe distance from vehicles ahead. The system’s radar, laser sensors, and/or cameras detect if you will be overtaking a vehicle in the lane ahead and automatically slows your speed if necessary. Your set cruise control speed resumes when traffic ahead allows.

collision-avoidance-systemCOLLISION AVOIDANCE SYSTEMS can prevent or reduce the severity of a collision by using cameras, radar, and sometimes LIDAR to detect an imminent crash. Once detected, the system provides a warning if a collision is imminent and can autonomously activate braking or steering, or both. If a driver does not react to a warning, the system pre-charges brakes and increases brake assist sensitivity to maximize braking performance. Most manufacturers plan to include automatic emergency braking as standard equipment on cars in the U.S. by 2022.

LANE DEPARTURE ALERT uses a specialized camera to detect painted lane markings and alert a driver that inadvertently strays out of their lane. An audible warning and indicator light on the instrument panel is typically used to warn wayward drivers, and sometimes a steering wheel vibration. In more sophisticated systems, Steering Assist will initiate corrective steering to help keep the vehicle in its lane if a driver does not take corrective action.

lane-departure-warningOBSTACLE AVOIDANCE SYSTEMS scan the road ahead with radar, ultrasonic sensors, and/or cameras for pedestrians, motorcycles, large animals, or other objects that are stopped or moving slowly. Initially, visual and audio warnings are given when a potential collision is detected by the sensors. If necessary, automated steering and braking maneuvers the vehicle to avoid a collision.

ANTICIPATING THE ROAD AHEAD is possible with GPS navigation data integrated with on-board systems. For example, navigation data can be used to control a transmission or set up suspension for a winding road ahead, or adjust for sporty driving, fuel economy, or comfort. In plug-in vehicles data can be used to identify sections of a route best suited for electric drive or for charging the battery.

real-time-traffic-informationREAL TIME TRAFFIC INFORMATION supplied by a traffic information service identifies accidents and other traffic delays by presenting this information on a navigation screen. The navigation system can calculate and recommend alternate routes to a destination that bypass the location causing a delay.

PARKING ASSIST enables hands-off automated parallel and often also perpendicular parking by controlling throttle, steering, and braking. The system scans to assure there is sufficient space and often locates vacant parking spots. Advanced systems may work with a real-time traffic information system to predict the odds of finding an open parking spot in a particular area, since looking for a parking space is a major contributor to traffic congestion in urban areas.

parking-assistPRE-SENSE SYSTEMS detect potentially unavoidable crashes with sensors from electronic stability and collision avoidance systems, blind spot detection, adaptive cruise control, and rear cameras. A pre-sense event occurs in phases with a visual and/or audible warning so the driver can take evasive action, then brief automatic braking tells a driver to apply braking with brake assist enhancing deceleration. If a collision can’t be avoided maximum braking is applied, seat belts are pre-tensioned, hazard lights are activated, windows are closed, and airbags deployed to mitigate injuries.

REMOTE PARK ASSIST allows your car to autonomously park in a tight spot or a narrow garage. With this system, driver and passengers exit the vehicle once it is aligned with a parking spot. The vehicle is then slowly and autonomously moved forward using a remote control fob or smartphone. This capability is made possible by surround-view sensors that enable precise movement and positioning of the vehicle amid other cars or objects, using the same sensors and controls as those used by more familiar parallel and perpendicular park assist systems. Once parked, the car can also be turned off and locked remotely. The process is reversed to fetch the car when you want to leave.

vehicle-to-vehicleVEHICLE-TO-VEHICLE COMMUNICATION allows vehicles to “talk” with one another to exchange information like speed and GPS-derived location. The main benefit is accident avoidance, but once implemented this sophisticated network could also reduce traffic congestion. Vehicles share safety data 10 times per second to identify risks and provide warnings to avoid crashes. This kind of information can inform a driver in advance whether it is safe to pass on a two-lane road, make a left turn across the path of oncoming traffic, or if a vehicle is approaching at a blind intersection. Vehicle-to-infrastructure communication enables the transfer of data between vehicles and elements of the roadway infrastructure including speed limits and traffic lights. With advanced V2V and V2I systems, vehicles could autonomously take necessary actions to avoid a potentially serious incident or collision.

Robocar of RoboraceThe age-old adage, “Race on Sunday, Sell on Monday,” is being applied to driverless cars in Roborace, a global championship series for autonomous electric race cars. Rather than fender-to-fender duels between race drivers, competitors will be programmers. The ones with the best software and artificial intelligence (AI) techniques will be taking the checkered flag. These advanced technologies could be used in future driverless vehicles that will be sold to consumers in coming years. As expected, the key challenge is collision-avoidance. If a driverless racer can avoid others racing alongside at 200 mph, the technology stands a pretty good chance on the street.

Each of the 10 teams participating in the Roborace series will be competing in identical driverless Robocars, two per team. It’s a new take on spec series racing where teams compete in identical cars, but in this case what sets teams apart is not a driver’s skill and daring, but the algorithms and capabilities of its programmers. In other words, the best computer programming skills will result in a win with less requirement for the enormous budgets or huge R&D required for most race competitions. That means college teams could conceivably compete against a team of Ferrari engineers. Racing is planned for the same tracks used by the FIA Formula E Championship series where electric-powered race cars compete, but still with human drivers.

Robocar by Roborace. Image by Daniel Simon.Designed by Daniel Simon, the 2145 pound, primarily carbon fiber Roborace Robocar is powered by four 402 horsepower (300 kW) motors and a 540 kWh battery, plus the requisite electronic gear. Obviously, there is no need for a cockpit with a steering wheel, instruments, or pedals. Safety equipment like roll cages and air bags are also unneeded. This frees up space and weight in the race car for a huge array of electronics including two radars, five laser-powered LIDAR detectors, six AI-driven cameras, two optical speed sensors, 18 ultrasonic sensors, and GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) positioning. The Robocar’s nose is made of special material so radar can ‘see’ through it. LIDARs are built into the wheel arches to eliminate blind spots. Computing is done by an NVIDIA Drive PX2 AI supercomputer capable of up to 24 trillion AI operations per second.

Initial testing began in the summer of 2016 using ‘DevBot’ test vehicles. These had the same internal components including battery, motor, ad electronics used in the Robocar, but were placed in the chassis of an LMP3 Ginetta race car. DevBots drove on their own, but they also had a cockpit so an engineer could sit inside and take control if required. The DevBots were quite different from the Robocar in looks and performance. During testing before the 2017 Buenos Aires ePrix, two DevBot cars raced autonomously against each other for 20 laps. This was the first-ever live demonstration of two driverless cars on the track at the same time. One successfully avoided a dog that ran onto the course while the other car crashed on a corner, showing there were clearly many challenges to be solved before race fans would see a full grid of Robocars racing on a track.

Roborace Chief Design Officer Daniel SimonNow another milestone has been achieved. A self-driving Robocar performed a demonstration on the city streets of Formula E’s Paris ePrix on May 20, with the car negotiating its way around 14 turns of the circuit in self-driving autonomous mode. Similar demonstrations will be performed at other Formula E events during the rest of the 2017 racing season.

There remains one important question: Will motorsports fans want to see silent driverless cars racing? One pundit says maybe so…when the NFL uses robot quarterbacks. Still, progress marches on. The Robocar is taking a bold step toward a new type of racing that will provide learnings and technology breakthroughs that should help bring autonomous cars to our highways sooner than later.

Roborace Chief Design Officer Daniel Simon