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2014 Technology of the Year: Autonomy

Todd LassawriterJason Raishillustrator

Ultimately, there will be no need for seatbelts, airbags, bumpers, rollover protection, steering wheels, pedals, or even Automobile Magazine. Cars will be various-size pods on wheels like the futuristic vehicles of Woody Allen's 1973 movie Sleeper, traveling closely, safely, and efficiently in neat little rows like trains without rails.

Why not just trains and light rail? Because your personal transportation pod will pick you up and drop you off, door-to-door, and you won't have to share it with the Great Unwashed.

It's not far-fetched to imagine that this is the way we'll "drive" by the time we reach the one-hundredth anniversary of the 1939 New York World's Fair, where a General Motors "Futurama" display predicted autonomous cars. By the time the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency held its challenges of the 2000s, autonomy was a question of "when," not "if." The mainstream media have recently chronicled how research and development programs of the major automakers and Tier 1 suppliers like Continental AG, Bosch, and TRW are going full-tilt on autonomous technology.

In recent months, major automakers have begun to speak openly about what they're planning, and the University of Michigan has just approved plans for a $6.5-million automated-car test track, to open in late 2014. Some luxury cars now steer themselves, in limited conditions. Because this technology will, for better or worse, forever change the way we use cars for personal mobility, it is Automobile Magazine's 2014 Technology of the Year.

For the rest of this decade, "autopilot" systems will trickle into new cars, extending the capabilities of global-positioning systems, automated cruise controls, lane-departure warning, cross-traffic warning, and automated parking assist, allowing the car to steer and accelerate and brake in highway traffic jams. Stereo cameras, radar/lidar, GPS, and car-to-car technology could advance automobiles far beyond such capability today, if not for unanswered legal questions.

Mercedes-Benz and Google both note that they buy autonomous technology from Continental. The German supplier has been most forthright in discussing driverless-
car technology, although it does not reveal specific customers. Conti became the first supplier to snag a special Nevada autonomous-car license plate and has tested a Volkswagen CC with the system from Nevada to Michigan, during which the driver used autopilot for long stretches on limited-access roads. The driver must re-engage to change lanes, take an exit, or pass another car. It detects when a driver is drowsy or isn't paying attention and searches for a safe spot to pull over. Cadillac's coming Super Cruise (see page 56) should be similar. Both systems will be on the market by the 2017 model year.

"In traffic jams, where you spend an hour or two every day, where you could spend more productive time, autonomous-car functions may be able to support you," says Takao Asami, Nissan's senior vice president for global R&D. The automaker presented two autopilot Leafs, one for city traffic and the other for highways, at its Nissan 360 media product fair last summer. "We don't need very high tech" for highway traffic-jam autopilot, Asami says, "because vehicle speed is slow anyway, and there is not much chance for an accident."

Legal and political ramifications are the next big hurdle. Despite the lawyered-up reputation of the United States, automakers are finding that we appear more open than the European Union about shifting to this technology. "It's going to happen quicker than the legal community is ready for," says Jim Hall, of 2953 Analytics.

Almost from the beginning, the automotive industry has considered how to eliminate its weakest link, the driver, at the very same time it has tried to make driving more engaging with better handling, steering, and overall performance. In the 1950s, General Motors and RCA experimented with magnetic pickup coils that followed wire embedded into the road and demonstrated it with a 1958 Chevrolet.

Conti's oft-stated goal is to eliminate traffic accidents and thus reduce fatalities to zero. Automakers are buying and developing such technology to offer consumers a new level of convenience. Google has been less forthcoming about its motives, although the prospect of higher profits as a result of people using its services while driving -- and advertisers paying Google to track where they go -- is obvious.

If you've driven any late-model luxury sedan with automated cruise control, lane-departure warning, blind-spot warning, and navigation, you understand intuitively how easy and fairly cheap it would be to add some software and have a semiautonomous car in your driveway tomorrow. As one automotive engineer says, "Technology is not the issue." The problem is how to ensure that autonomous cars can safely share the road with nonautonomous, unconnected cars. Who takes legal responsibility for the first accident involving an autonomous car?

Potential solutions will come from a vehicle-to-vehicle communications study that the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute is conducting for the U.S. Department of Transportation in Ann Arbor. The goal is to develop technology that would tell any vehicle on the road where other vehicles nearby are heading. Add in identification of pedestrians and bicyclists to back up the camera and lidar/radar technology that companies like Continental already are perfecting, and full autonomous driving, without the need for a steering wheel, is the logical endgame.

That endgame remains decades off and holds no appeal to enthusiasts, but its progression is inevitable when you consider the needs and wants of the typical daily commuter.

In the short term, "autopilot" systems will make texting and phone-calling while driving safer and will improve traffic flow. Enthusiasts can find solace in the fact that while our future cars will steer, accelerate, and brake for us on the way to work each morning, we'll still be able to turn off the system on an interesting road.

Mr. Kacher's quiet chauffeur
Initially, it's an eerie, creepy, occasionally even scary experience. Here I am, at the wheel of what looks like a bog-standard Mercedes-Benz S500, yet for the first time ever, it is not me but the car that is doing all the driving. Governed by cameras, radar sensors, and a GPS blob on the roof, the big black Benz threads through traffic like a robot with human eyes and a human brain.

With a little help from Nokia, MercedesBenz has recorded and saved every lamppost, roadside tree, shoulder, centerline, guardrail, landmark building, pedestrian crossing, traffic light, and road sign on a portion of the 1888 Bertha Benz run from Mannheim to Pforzheim, Germany.

"We cannot yet cope with heavy rain, total darkness, and snow-covered roads," says chief project engineer Eberhard Kaus. "The car would also be outwitted by temporary roadwork or a pedestrian crosswalk that has been added overnight."

But on this wide, winding country road, the computer-guided machine drives with the same natural ease as a flesh-and-blood chauffeur. However, through narrow village streets and tight roundabouts, the autonomous S-class behaves more like a beginner under the influence. Steering inputs are, for now, staggered rather than fluid, and acceleration maneuvers appear either too optimistic or strangely hesitant. The electronic mind frequently hits the brakes for no apparent reason, and the car's line runs uncomfortably close to the curb and to parked cars. However, it duly swerves wide to avoid cyclists and the odd stray dog, lets oncoming traffic pass while waiting behind a parked bus or delivery van, and wafts through the tightest gaps with admirable optometrical self-confidence.

The Stuttgart grapevine indicates that autonomous driving is going to be introduced in 2020 in the W223 S-class. For an expected price of less than $3000, it will be a relatively affordable safety and convenience feature. -- Georg Kacher

Look, Readers, No Hands!
My first "drive" of Continental's semiautonomous car.

Remember how you couldn't wait to get your driver's license, to get your hands and feet on the steering wheel, the throttle pedal, the brakes, and the clutch pedal of a real, live car? That sort of anticipation struck me last June when I became the first American journalist (and second of any, after a German writer) to "drive" a Continental AG semiautonomous car at the Tier 1 supplier and tire manufacturer's Contidrom test facility near Hannover, Germany.

I get behind the wheel of a U.S.-spec Volkswagen Passat outfitted with a stereo camera mounted between the rearview mirror and the windshield header, four 24-gigahertz short-range radars, and one 77-gigahertz long-range radar, which identify the borders and lanes of a road, plus buildings, barriers, other vehicles, and even pedestrians, bicyclists, and animals. I'm driving on a simulated suburban road and pull the adaptive-cruise-control stalk forward. I tip the throttle and steer off. Three indicator lights glow on the center stack indicating the autopilot is standing by. One half of the center-stack screen displays a real camera view of the road ahead. The other half depicts in lime green the part of the road on which the car can safely drive. Trees, construction barriers, and curbs are deep blue, turning the Passat's center screen into a kind of early-1980s video game. These displays demonstrate for testing what the car can "see." It will be seamless in production.

When I reach clearly marked lanes, the steering wheel torques feedback to indicate that it's ready to take over. The car takes moderately sharp corners perfectly, slows when it reads a 30-kph speed-limit sign, and brakes and accelerates as necessary. Past a simulated construction zone, a BMW 3-Series inches along just ahead to mimic stop-and-go traffic. The Passat's automated cruise control stops the car, then lets it inch along, too, hands-free. It operates from 0 to 130 kph (81 mph).

Such built-up first-drive anticipation culminates in an imbalanced ratio of tension to ease-of-driving. There is nothing to do except drink it all in and be ready to grab the wheel. Although the technology holds no enthusiast's thrill for me today, it should appeal to teenagers who don't care about cars and who grew up watching cartoons in the back seats of SUVs instead of looking out the window. It may appeal to me in thirty-five years, when cars have no reason for steering wheels. I hope I'll still be able to ride a bicycle in my nineties.

Thanks to a lower level of autopilot, making calls or texting will be safe within a few years. The transmission must be an automatic. As Continental electronics software engineer Thomas Lingenau confirms, autopilot -- or autonomy -- will pound the final nail in the coffin of the manual transmission. One theory is that when the technology quickly accelerates and suddenly there's nothing but autopiloted vehicles, the last manually driven (and shifted) vehicles will be sports cars.

Lingenau says Continental's limited autonomy for traffic jams and construction zones will be available commercially by the 2017 model year.

I regain control by tapping on the turn signal, then brake for a left turn. The system finds the new road and re-engages.

Although mixing semiautonomous cars with conventional cars is the big legal issue in the short term, I get a good demonstration of the technology's capabilities back in the United States. I'm in the passenger seat of another Volkswagen on an American freeway, with Continental engineer Ibro Muharemovic behind the wheel. His hands are off the wheel and his feet are off the pedals. When a Chevy Volt in the lane to the left suddenly moves into our lane, the Conti test car quickly brakes, leaving space for the Volt to safely move over, proving the technology is ready, even if we are not. -- Todd Lassa

The Future of Autonomy
The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute will open a thirty-acre, $6.5-million test facility in Ann Arbor in the fall of 2014 to test autonomous-vehicle technology. Here's what we can expect to see at that facility from some of the major automakers:

BMW AG: Will soon launch a traffic-jam-assist option in Europe. Has a two-year joint-venture agreement with Continental (through the end of 2014) to test a number of highly automated prototypes on European motorways.

Chrysler Group: Offers forward-collision warning that activates brakes when warranted and active cruise control in some models. Says vehicle-to-vehicle technology must come first, and data-security and customer-privacy issues must be addressed.

Daimler AG: A Mercedes-Benz S500 Intelligent Drive research car drove itself about sixty miles from Mannheim to Pforzheim, Germany, using amped-up software for the system that's already available in the 2014 E- and S-class models.

Ford Motor Company: Has offered automated-parking-assist technology for years. Plans to offer traffic-jam-assist technology within five years.

General Motors: Cadillac's Super Cruise will allow hands-free driving under limited conditions. We expect it to launch in Cadillac's rival to the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, due for 2017.

Honda Motor Company: Researching vehicle-to-pedestrian technology that simultaneously warns a driver of a pedestrian entering a crosswalk while alerting the pedestrian through his/her smartphone to look up. Similar technology can warn a driver of a motorcycle hidden behind a larger vehicle.

Nissan Motor Company: Plans commercially viable Autonomous Drive in several models in 2020. The technology will roll out across the Nissan/Infiniti model range within two vehicle generations.

Tesla Motors: CEO Elon Musk plans to offer technology that could take over 90 percent of driving by late 2016. In September, he tweeted a help-wanted ad for engineers to help meet the goal.

Toyota Motor Corporation: Offers automated parking assist in several models. Its new Automated Highway Driving Assist will combine Cooperative-adaptive Cruise Control and Lane Trace Control to maintain a "smooth driving line."

Volkswagen Group: Traffic-jam pilot will upgrade traffic-jam assist in about 2017 with some self-steering accompanying adaptive cruise control for limited-access roads and highways. VW Group expects full autonomy in ten to fifteen years in some of its brands.

Volvo Car Corporation: City Safety launched for 2009 and can automatically brake a car to a stop. Safe Road Trains for the Environment tested in Spain in 2012; up to four cars, each twenty feet apart, "platooned" behind a driver-operated semitruck.

NHTSA's Autonomous Car Scale

Last spring, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration essentially endorsed the technology by defining five levels of autonomy and announcing a research program in order to establish standards. "The first phase of this research is expected to be completed within the next four years," its summary says. That may be too late.

0. No automation
Driver is always in control of the brakes, throttle, steering, and motive power.

1. Function-specific automation
One or more specific control functions, such as electronic stability control or precharged brakes.

2. Combined-function automation
At least two primary control functions for limited automation. Adaptive cruise control with lane centering, for example. See AcuraRLX, Infiniti Q50, and Mercedes-Benz S-class.

3. Limited self-driving automation
The driver can cede full control of steering, brakes, and throttle under certain traffic or environmental conditions. The driver must be ready to take over if the vehicle system detects critical changes in the conditions.

4. Full-driving automation
The vehicle can perform all safety-critical driving and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. The driver may be required to input navigation or destination information. Includes unoccupied delivery vehicles.