Automotive automation: Too much, or not enough?
Regardless of your age, if you are old enough to drive you have seen a great progression in automobile automation and technology. Even a sixteen-year old is today likely learning to drive on a vehicle with antilock brakes, traction control, multiple airbags, and a host of other automation and safety technology.
(Photo credit: IIHS)
Much of this automotive technology supplements, or even takes away, control from the driver. What’s on the horizon? How much (if at all) is too much?
It is hard to argue against airbags (made mandatory in the US in 1998). There have been many advances in the last several years, many of which are being mandated now by the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency (NHTSA) through their comprehensive set of regulations known as the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). These are the regulations that all auto manufacturers selling vehicles in the United States have to meet. Beginning with mandatory seat belt requirements in 1967, additional technologies have been added each year.
The latest such addition mandated by NHTSA is the rear view camera. All 2019 vehicles will be required to have a backup camera installed. This system uses the now ubiquitous LCD displays that vehicles possess (sometimes hidden behind the surface of the rear-view mirror) to display an image from a small camera located in the bumper, deck-lid, or license plate ring.
(Photo credit: Cadillac)
Not yet required, but being considered by NHTSA, is blind spot detection. This has been available for several years on higher-end vehicles. These systems utilize a proximity sensor in the side mirror to detect and indicate to the driver if the lane next to the vehicle is occupied. A warning indicator in or near the side mirror is illuminated when a vehicle or other object is sensed in an adjacent lane, or a blind spot. This is extremely simple and relatively inexpensive technology, typically using ultrasonic or capacitive sensors to detect objects, and inexpensive processors with a variety of algorithms to decode, detect, and relay the information back to the driver.
Going a step further, some very high-end cars use a camera and video processing to warn against lane departure – vibrating the steering wheel or seat, or otherwise indicating to a sleepy or inattentive driver if they start to drift out of their lane. As with video cameras, the processing technology has become much more compact and integrated, allowing for this level of recognition of lane markings or simply contrast (what is road and what is not).
Less high-tech, but just as notable, Tesla and Volkswagen have concept vehicles now that replace the side mirrors entirely with small displays. This has been done largely for aerodynamics. The large and funky headlights on the Nissan LEAF were designed specifically to reduce aerodynamic drag and turbulence created by the side mirrors, which has plagued automotive designers for years. It is easy to extrapolate that the next step will be to utilize video processing similar to lane-departure warning systems to identify when vehicles are present next to the vehicle.
LEAF headlight design reduces drag Tesla replaces side mirrors with camera & display
(Photo credit: Nissan USA) (Photo credit: Tesla)
You may not know this, but Electronic Stability Control (ESC) is now a requirement of the FMVSS (as of 2012 model year light vehicles). This had already been offered on many higher-end vehicles for quite some time (early versions were showing up prior to 2000). Different from simple Traction Control (available since the 1990s), which typically just reduced wheel spin, or Anti-lock Braking Systems (ABS), which would pulse the brakes rapidly when applied, ESC works actively to cut power and selectively apply the brakes (even when you are not attempting to brake) to direct power to the wheels that need it. The system uses a variety of sensors (wheel speed, land speed, steering input, and roll/yaw accelerometers) to determine what the driver is attempting, what the vehicle is doing, and how close the vehicle is to rollover or loss of control.
Even more impressive are accident avoidance technologies, which automatically brake before an imminent impact. Again, offered on higher-end vehicles, these systems utilize proximity sensors (similar to blind-spot warning indication) to detect a stopped vehicle and apply the brakes. The same technology is also applied to create Adaptive Cruise Control, which reduces a set cruise speed to match that of a vehicle in front of you.
Perhaps the most impressive technology is Parking Assist. Several vehicles today offer semi-automated parallel parking; simply press a button, line the car up, and the vehicle parks itself. The sensing pieces are all there: proximity at front, rear, and side. The throttle and brake controls are all there, courtesy of ESC. All that was left to include was actuation of the steering wheel – a relatively simple problem, solved by a stepper motor and controller.
So, we now have automated systems for braking, acceleration, steering, and accident avoidance. What’s left? We are quickly approaching the fabled self-driving car. Inexpensive sensing and processing technologies have made this all possible. As advanced features continue to develop – and become required of new vehicles – at what point will the FMVSS require the driver to be taken out of the equation completely, in the interest of everyone’s safety?