By-wire controls with at least some authority over the throttle, brakes, and steering are now commonplace. The current trend of using electric motors instead of hydraulic pressure to assist power steering is another step in the automated-control direction. Still, it's a major leap from automatic steering at parking speeds and a soft nudge of the binders to whirling the wheel and spiking the brakes to avoid a high-speed, head-on collision.
Some of the hardware required to close this gap is now in test vehicles. GM has a vehicle-to-vehicle communication system using simple and affordable GPS to sense the presence of other vehicles, whether they're in a nearby blind spot or up to a quarter of a mile away. VW's recent Passat-based iCar packs powerful computer hardware for automatic steering plus a DARPA-like camera, radar, and proximity sensors.
The most interesting iCar feature is what VW calls PyroBrake. When camera and radar sensors warn that a collision is imminent, emergency braking can be activated in 80 milliseconds by means of a pyrotechnic charge similar to those that inflate air bags. According to VW engineer Mark Gonter, this approach is more than four times quicker than other forms of panic braking. "The question now," Gonter adds, "is how to detect an unavoidable collision without any false alarms."
As the technological gap closes, a philosophical one looms. To implement collision-avoidance systems that take control from the driver and give it to computer chips, carmakers will need the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's blessing. That may not be terribly difficult to obtain. NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said, "We certainly encourage development of this technology, because we believe that there are few gains left to be made by improving the vehicle. Therefore, further significant improvements in safety will have to come from helping drivers avoid collisions in the first place."