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The car of tomorrow

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8888We're not quite there, but the technology does exist, and some of it is making its way into today's cars. Cars can now park themselves. Cars can follow lanes and manage traffic jams by themselves. Cars can slam on their brakes if you miss something.

Safety is a primary concern for carmakers and the buying public alike. And leading that charge is, and will continue to be, technology.

And as with most technology, what we see today points the way to what we're likely to see tomorrow. Here's a look at both what's really cool now, and what will be soon.

Autonomous driving

Popular Mechanics wasn't wrong, just a little too optimistic.

Carlos Ghosn, president of Japanese carmaker Nissan and French carmaker Renault, has recently vowed to put self-driving cars on the road by the year 2020. Much of what's needed to do that exists already.

In cars such as the 2014 Acura MDX and RLX, 2014 Mercedes-Benz E-Class and S-Class and some Infiniti models, active lane-keeping assist uses cameras, radar and sonar to help you keep the car centred in the lane. In the Acura and Mercedes models in particular, the systems combine to entirely take over driving in low-speed, high-congestion traffic, such as crawling along a crowded freeway.

With the systems engaged, the distance-sensing cruise control completely manages the speed of the vehicle, from applying full braking and holding the car stopped when traffic stops to applying slight throttle to keep the car moving along when traffic resumes moving. The camera, mounted between the rear-view mirror and windshield, watches the lane markings (and in the case of Mercedes, also the car in front -- in case the lane markings are obscured) to control the steering to keep you following along.

At higher speeds, the system leaves driving to you, but will steer the car through curves up to 30 degrees. Such systems will warn you if you get lazy about holding the wheel, and will shut off if you ignore the warnings.

Christopher Goczan, national product manager for Mercedes-Benz, stresses at every opportunity these systems are not designed to let the car drive itself -- yet. "This is not autonomous driving," he said. "This is not designed to relieve the driver of responsibility."

And while he thinks Nissan's goal of 2020 is ambitious, he does think autonomous drive will be here, and perhaps sooner than you think.

(Nissan just this week obtained approval from the Japanese government to begin testing on public roads a vehicle with some of the necessary features in place, including automatic overtaking, stopping at red lights and automatic exiting off a highway.)

There are a number of challenges to overcome first, however. Complete autonomous drive will require cars to communicate automatically with each other, to share location, direction and speed information to prevent collisions. That will require all carmakers to agree to a set of standards for so-called vehicle-to-vehicle communications.

Governments around the world will also need to engage in the process, since most visions of autonomous driving include the notion that infrastructure (roads, traffic departments and traffic signals) will also communicate with cars to prepare cars for red lights, suggest alternative routes and share other road information, such as approaching curves, construction zones and detours.

Finally, carmakers, governments and insurance companies will need to resolve the issue of liability. Namely, if two self-driving cars collide, who is at fault? The carmakers? The passengers? (Note the deliberate use of term passengers.) Is fault shared?

Can you see through cars?

If you can't, the new Infiniti Q50 sports sedan can. Its forward radar system can not only track the car in front of you, it can track the car ahead of that one, too.

Tim Franklin, senior product manager for Infiniti Canada, said as engineers were working to filter out what they thought was useless noise coming back from the radar sensors, they realized it wasn't noise at all. "It was coming off the car ahead of the car ahead," he said.

What that means is the system will warn you the car in front of the car in front of you is slowing down even if it doesn't occur to the driver ahead of you.

The system is part of what Infiniti calls a Safety Shield, coming soon to other Infiniti models, too. When combined with the driver-assistance package, the radar will cause the brakes to slow and even stop the car in case you don't.

Signs, signs, everywhere a sign

Coming soon to a road near you: Cars that read road signs.

The technology is already here, or, rather, there. In the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class in Europe, the same camera used to keep the car in its lane also watches for and deciphers road signs. If it locates a sign you need to know about, it will tell you.

The technology was developed by Continental and Delphi, two automotive suppliers whose components are found in many of the vehicles on the road. The first such system was in the 2008 BMW 7-Series in the European market. Volvo, Opel and VW/Audi also have similar systems on some models.

Early systems only read speed restrictions. But the latest system, on the S-Class, also reads wrong-way signs and overtaking restrictions. Considering the number of times a fatal collision has involved a driver getting mixed up and driving the wrong way down a highway, it's an important safety consideration.

The system hasn't arrived in North American models yet, because unlike Europe -- which has consistent standards for the size, shape and markings on road signs -- signs here vary between Canada and the U.S.

"I can't tell you it will be here on this day and on this model," begins Mercedes' Goczan, "but we're working on it."

Your car, sir

One low-risk application of autonomous drive is under development right now at Volkswagen's Electronics Research Laboratory in Palo Alto, Calif. When I was there, a VW Passat Wagon was outfitted with computers, cameras and GPS equipment designed to let the car find its own way into a parkade, find a spot and park itself.

When, for example, your shopping trip was finished, the car would present itself at the entrance after you summoned it via a smartphone application.

The big advantage, according to Volkswagen, is the parkade could accommodate far more cars for a given amount of real estate. Since you don't have to allow for people to get in or out of the car, the system was able to park the cars as close as eight centimetres apart. If the minimum distance to open a door is 40 cm, and the average car's width is 180 cm, you can park one extra car for every six cars parked.

The equipment at the time, 2011, filled the car's cargo area. So there's some development work remaining to be done. But considering the climbing cost of real estate and parking in major cities, a system that can pack in more cars per square metre would be popular.

The truth is out there; way out there, in fact

One safety system that's been on automakers' radar for years has been the ability for cars to communicate among themselves.

The benefits are manifold. Two cars approaching a blind intersection could warn each other and give their drivers a signal. A car whose driver is slamming on the brakes could send warnings to multiple cars behind, helping reduce or eliminate a pileup. Cruise-control systems among a line of cars in traffic could interlock, helping provide even better distance separation than today's distance-sensing cruise control.

But finding a reliable means of communication has been the tricky part, especially in a crowded road environment where multiple cars would be competing for attention. Radio signals can jam each other, and networks can go down.

Ford is looking up for a solution. Way up. The company is studying whether the communications systems for space robots such as the Mars Lander and ground-to-spaceship communications might hold the answer to vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications.

"The research of fallback options and robust message networks is important," Oleg Gusikhin, technical leader in systems analytics for Ford, said in a statement. "If one network is down, alternatives need to be identified and strengthened to reliably propagate messages between networks."

My prediction is some kind of combination of satellite reception (to get real-time traffic and road system updates) and cellular telephone technology -- such as is already used by General Motors' OnStar system -- and short-range VHF or UHF radio communication likely sending high-speed bursts of data to nearby cars and using some form of what computer geeks call handshaking -- when the cars' systems can time their transmissions to avoid interfering with each other. All this exists now: The challenge is putting it together in a way carmakers can agree on.

Brake assist with cross-traffic assist

The first brake-assist systems calculated the likelihood you were in a panic stop situation by tracking how quickly you moved your foot from the accelerator to brake pedals. If you did this very quickly, it assumed you needed to stop RIGHT NOW, and ramped up braking pressure to full, or at least just to the point the anti-lock kicks in. The reason for brake assist in the first place is a proven fact: Most drivers do not brake hard enough in panic stops. Veteran driving instructor Pierre Savoy of BMW Advanced Driver Training puts it this way: Try to break off the brake pedal. That's how you know you're pressing hard enough.

Then, carmakers began including inputs from the radar system used in distance-sensing cruise control, and were able to provide optimum braking for the remaining distance. If you needed full braking, either because you were just at the limit of being able to stop in time or because a collision was inevitable, you'd get full braking. But if you had enough time to spread out the braking, this system would do it for you, even if you slammed on at 100 per cent brake pressure. The thinking here is by not stopping with full brake pressure, you give the cars behind you more time to stop and hopefully avoid a chain-reaction collision.

Brake assist is about to move into an even more sophisticated realm. Mercedes-Benz now offers Brake Assist Plus with Cross-Traffic Assist. It uses the same stereo camera used for lane-keeping, as well as the same radar sensors (short-, medium- and long-range) used for distance-sensing cruise control, to detect pedestrians, cyclists or cars entering your line of travel. If the driver reacts in time, the brake assist provides the right amount of braking. If the driver doesn't react in time, it can stop the car itself up to speeds of approximately 50 km/h.

The most exotic systems are available on the highest levels of a brand's model range. Mercedes offers systems such as the cross-traffic assist and active lane-keeping only on its E and S-Class models. But spokeswoman JoAnne Caza said it is likely as development proceeds and economies of scale allow, such systems will become as ubiquitous in the future as airbags and anti-lock brakes are today.

Night vision with pedestrian detection

Ever been out at night and come across a pedestrian about to cross the road? Most pedestrians will see you coming, but what if they don't? Another system, again by Mercedes, offers two benefits. Night vision available on the 2014 S-Class uses infrared detectors to identify heat sources, such as animals or people, in its field of vision.

Usually, it operates in the background, but if it detects something, it opens a window on the instrument cluster to show you what it's found. Here's the really cool thing: If it determines the object is a person, it aims the left headlight at that person and flashes five times as a warning. If you think that's cool, how's this: It knows the difference between people and animals, and since it would be dangerous to flash headlights at animals -- due to their unpredictable reactions -- it won't.

Other forms of night vision are available from a variety of manufacturers, from BMW to Volvo to Volkswagen.

'Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads'

Popular Mechanics didn't get this wrong, either. Terrafugia, a Massachusetts manufacturer, is developing its first model, the Transition, which uses foldable wings to be able to drive on the road and then take to the skies. The company says it meets U.S. federal safety standards for roadworthy vehicles, and transitioning from road-going to airborne "is comparable to putting down the top on your convertible."

Of course, you need to know how to fly. And you need to be able to afford the projected US$279,000 base price. But, for $10,000, you can buy your spot on the waiting list now.

But what about the human element?

No technological development will have greater benefit in road safety than improving the system seated in the driver's seat. Boosting requirements for driver's licensing and making advanced-driver training mandatory will teach drivers the skills they need to recognize and avoid potential collisions. Knowing just what a car is capable of performing is critical to help drivers avoid freezing in panic. Almost every driving situation faced by average drivers can be overcome with the right training and knowledge.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 D8

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