Look mom, no hands

Look mom, no hands

The human condition is responsible for 90% (according to tech liberals) of accidents on our roads. So why not take the driver out of the equation completely? And will a computerised system be able to calculate all the possible variables of life? JACO DE KLERK seeks possible answers.

The work day comes to an end and you’re spent after your efforts to “bring home the bacon”. Only one obstacle remains between you and blissful relaxation … rush hour traffic! The mind starts to wander while stuck in this never ending stream of vehicles “What’s for dinner? When’s that sitcom on?”, when suddenly it hits you – or, more correctly, you hit it! The vehicle in front of you has stopped and, in your reverie, you’ve rear-ended it.

One could argue that your lack of attention is to blame for the accident, but the answer isn’t that simple. Driver error is the main cause of traffic accidents and – with the advent of cell phones, in-car entertainment systems, increased traffic and more complicated road systems – this isn’t likely to change in the foreseeable future.

With all this to distract the driver, who is going to concentrate on the road? The answer is that technological advances may soon enable your vehicle to do the concentrating, and the driving, on its own.

The 1970s saw the first building block towards the realisation of autonomous vehicles, with Japan’s Mechanical Engineering Lab building a machine capable of following roads for up to 50 metres while reaching a maximum speed of 30 km/h.

Currently there are various projects underway at universities, research institutes and high-tech companies around the world to achieve a more advanced version of the same thing. According to Alan Taub, General Motors’ (GM) vice-president of global research and development, 2015 could see vehicles that partially drive themselves, with even more sophisticated self-driving systems on the horizon of 2020. This will be made possible by combining sensors, radar, portable communication devices, GPS and cameras with digital maps.

“The technologies we’re developing will provide added convenience by partially, or even completely, taking over the driving duties,” Taub says. “The primary goal, though, is safety. Future safety systems will eliminate the crash altogether by interceding on behalf of drivers before they’re even aware of a hazardous situation.”

GM has already fitted a few of these advanced technologies into its vehicles – for example, a lane departure warning system, blind-zone alert and back-up cameras. Additional sophisticated safety systems under development will provide a further foundation for driverless systems. These include:

• An innovative crash avoidance system which uses cameras to help drivers avoid front-end and lane departure crashes. This industry-first system utilises a high-resolution digital camera, mounted on the windshield in front of the rear-view mirror, to look for silhouettes of vehicles and lane markings, thereby alerting the driver to possible collisions and lane departures;

• Vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication systems, which gather information from other vehicles, roadways and traffic signals. These systems will warn drivers about possible hazards ahead, including slowed or stalled vehicles, hard-braking drivers, slippery roads, sharp curves, and upcoming stop signs or intersections;

• The Electric Networked-Vehicle (EN-V) urban mobility concept, which combines GPS with vehicle-to-vehicle communications and distance-sensing technologies to enable autonomous driving. The EN-V’s capabilities include pedestrian detection, collision avoidance, platooning (a convoy where a professional driver in a lead vehicle drives a line of other vehicles) and automated parking and retrieval. The afore-mentioned is possible via commands from a Smartphone.

From all of the above, it is clear that technological advances will soon make it possible for a vehicle to run without a driver. But is this driverless future really an advantage? Carl Johan Almqvist, traffic and product safety director at Volvo Truck Corporation, believes that making vehicles more autonomous is perhaps not a question of excluding drivers, but of emphasising their importance. He says the safest approach is to combine the automated system’s 360-degree awareness with the professional driver’s knowledge and experience.

“We believe in the driver and appreciate that the human brain can make decisions that automatic systems struggle with,” Almqvist says. “The computer never gets tired, but it can only do things for which it is programmed. As soon as you are outside of normal situations, that is where the driver’s skill comes in. Drivers are often best placed to assess a situation and to choose between slowing down, panic braking or driving round an obstacle.”

Taking this into account, Volvo Trucks is developing a system which supports drivers in situations where they are under-stimulated (such as in the never-ending stream of vehicles mentioned in the opening paragraph). The SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) project partnered with Volvo (through its centre for research and innovation) to work on the vision of uniting an expert driver with increased automation. This project aims to develop technology for vehicle platooning, in which each vehicle in the convoy measures the distance, speed and direction to the vehicle in front and adjusts accordingly. Vehicles aren’t physically attached and can thus leave the procession when they so desire.

Platooning may deliver a number of benefits such as: road safety improvement (as the human factor is minimised); reduction of fuel consumption (and thus also CO2 emissions) by up to 20%, cutbacks on road congestion (as vehicles will only be a few metres apart); and allowing the drivers in the following vehicles to rest, work, or even eat.

“Safety is one of Volvo’s core values, so we are investing considerable effort in automation while doing it in the safest possible way,” says Almqvist. “The technology is moving quickly, but getting it to work in a safe way with a human being is our ultimate aim. You should feel as safe as you do when driving yourself, even if it is a computer that is doing the work.”

So, one day in the not too distant future, you may find yourself on your way home from work and being driven, safely and without a care in the world, by a computer … And perhaps your eyes will glance at the heavens and your (relaxed) mind will wonder …” How would traffic jams look in the sky?”

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