Automation

AV Tech Is Already Improving Vehicle Safety

More new cars are coming with adaptive, automated driving features, and despite the technology being in the relatively early stages, it is already showing life-saving promise.

by Dan Gearino, The Columbus Dispatch / March 26, 2018
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) — A central Ohio man was driving his 2017 Honda CR-V to Chicago and realized somewhere on a rural stretch of interstate that the vehicle could pretty much drive without him.

He was using adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist, two features available as options on the CR-V. As a result, he didn't have to do much more than keep his hands on the wheel as the vehicle made minor adjustments in speed and direction.

This would be a memorable moment for anyone, but especially for this driver and passenger, Levent Guvenc and Bilin Aksun Guvenc, a married couple who also work together as mechanical engineers at Ohio State University's Center for Automotive Research.

They have spent decades studying and developing the technologies that underlie automated driving, first in their native Turkey and now here. But this trip to Chicago was something different, an unexpected reminder of something they knew but had not experienced in this way: automated driving technologies are here already.

Somewhere along the way to making a fully autonomous vehicle, carmakers have made vehicles much safer.

The safety features are being introduced across vehicle lineups, starting with luxury models and then moving down the line to the cars and trucks most of us drive. Some features, such as lane-keeping, can be used every day. Others, such as automatic braking, are there for emergencies.

"Emergency braking, I don't ever want to use it but I want it on my car," Levent Guvenc said during a tour of the OSU lab where he works.

As drivers experience these new technologies, it might seem that fully automated driving is just around the corner. The reality is more complex, according to the Guvencs and other experts. It is a matter of technology and regulation and will involve a big shift in the way people think about driving.

For now, no vehicle should be on the road without a driver, as shown by the recent fatal crash in Tempe, Arizona, involving an Uber vehicle that was in self-driving mode.

"We have to be patient," Bilin Aksun Guvenc said.

Automakers also are careful in setting expectations.

"I think autonomy is a great thing, but right now we're in that halfway house," said Mark Gillies, senior manager for product and technology for Volkswagen of America. "We don't have the regulatory framework in place; we don't have the infrastructure."

What we do have is automatic braking, a technology that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said will need to be standard equipment on most models by 2022, and is widely available as an add-on today.

Gillies sketches a scenario for how it works: You're driving and turn away to adjust the radio dial or say something to the children in the back, and the car's sensors detect an imminent collision. The car turns on a notification and, if needed, slams on the brakes to avoid the crash or reduce the severity.

Japanese and German automakers are leading the way in offering automatic braking as standard equipment, while U.S. companies tend to offer the feature only as an add-on, and only on some models.

Toyota and Mercedes-Benz have automatic braking as a standard feature almost across their 2018 lineups. Honda has the feature standard on the new 2018 Accord, and on several models of its luxury Acura brand. Audi has the feature standard on much of its lineup.

The next tier are companies that offer automatic braking as an add-on, usually as part of a technology package that adds several thousand dollars to the sticker price. This includes the country's top-selling vehicle, the Ford F-150 pickup.

"Front-to-rear crashes are probably one of the biggest crash scenarios that exist, and (automatic braking) has the largest potential to reduce front-to-rear crashes," said David Aylor, manager of safety testing for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit group that studies ways to reduce vehicle crashes.

As drivers get used to new safety features, researchers are working on the next steps toward full automation. There are some big challenges, such as designing sensors that work well in inclement weather, and systems that can recognize pedestrians, bicyclists and animals.

The Arizona crash shows one type of situation that is vexing for engineers. Initial reports are that the car hit a woman who was walking a bike across the street. It was night and the road had a median that may have partially obscured the person walking.

Developers of the self-driving system "should have done better work on their algorithms for perception" of pedestrians, Levent Guvenc said.

Even so, there was a clear failure by the driver to assume manual control. Police have released video showing the driver was looking down until an instant before the crash.

Bicyclists present some big challenges for makers of self-driving systems, with narrow dimensions that can be difficult for sensors to see, and a tendency for riders to travel in unpredictable paths.

This is one of many reasons the Guvencs say that human drivers, even if just for backup purposes, will be needed for many more years, and they will need to be paying attention at all times.

So, even though he could relax a bit on that trip to Chicago, he needed to remain engaged.

©2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.