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Self-Driving Cars Are Just the Beginning

A look at this year's best in show from some of the world's top automakers at CES.

by Susan Carpenter - The Orange County Register / January 8, 2015
Mercedes-Benz new concept car F 015 was revealed during their keynote address.

(TNS) Jan. 07--When the International Consumer Electronics Show rolled into Las Vegas this week, it did so with the largest contingent of automakers ever. A record 10 companies showed up to show off their cars, not only as vehicles but as cutting-edge mobile devices that demonstrate the convergence of transportation and computer wizardry.

Laser headlights, gesture controls, self-parking cars, smart watches that double as keys and other gee-whiz-bangery figured prominently this year as cars become increasingly automated and connected to the Web.

In a fevered auto-buying market emboldened by low gas prices and an elevated economic mood, in-vehicle technology is rising as a key selling point. More than a third of car buyers now cite in-vehicle tech as their No. 1 reason for purchasing a specific make and model, according to the San Francisco technology consulting firm Accenture.

If even a fraction of what was shown at CES this week comes to fruition, that percentage is likely to rise.

Audi of America president Scott Keogh put it best at his company's press conference Tuesday: "We are transforming the car from gasoline, heavy metal and rubber into the smartest and most beautiful digital device."

Below, we take a look at this year's best in show from some of the world's top automakers.

Mercedes-Benz creates a living space on wheels

With its extruded profile and cocktail lounge interior, the F 015 Luxury in Motion research vehicle looks nothing like any other sedan on the road, and that is precisely the point, according to Mercedes-Benz chief Dieter Zetsche.

"Anyone who focuses solely on the technology has not yet grasped how autonomous driving will change our society," Zetsche said in a statement released Monday, shortly after the concept car drove itself down the Las Vegas strip in a wash of futuristic blue LEDs. "The car is growing beyond its role as a mere means of transport and will ultimately become a mobile living space."

Longish as a limo and, as a result, larger inside to emulate a more luxurious living space, the F 015 Luxury in Motion is exactly as it's named. Its four doors open saloon style, revealing plush leather seats that automatically protrude for easier access.

The bucket seats in the front end of the car swivel to face forward, for manual operation with an actual driver behind the wheel, or aft, when driving itself, creating a face-to-face conversation area similar to a banquette with even more pampering features than the most top-of-the-line Mercedes.

There are six display screens in the F 015's front, side and rear panels for an over-the-top experience the German automaker calls "the digital arena," which seems to negate the purpose of face-your-neighbors seating. Who needs conversation when there's a bevy of screens with which to interact that don't even require vocal cords for operation? Sensors in the sedan's interior pick up passenger gestures to operate the screens, which can also be controlled with eye-tracking technology.

Developed to meet the needs of a project Mercedes has dubbed "City of the Future 2030+," the F 015 Luxury in Motion presumes autonomous driving will, by then, be a reality. Freed from the time suck of commuting, drivers in the near future will retreat to their cars not only for mobility but sanctuary.

Audi summons its piloted driving Prologue Concept with a smart watch

Tucked under the sleeve of a suit coat, the watch on Ulrich Hackenberg's left wrist drew little attention until he pressed its face to turn on the ignition of Audi's Prologue Concept and then to drive the sleek sedan on the Las Vegas Convention Center stage Tuesday. Audi's research and development chief was demonstrating one of several new wrinkles connecting cars with various technologies, including wearables such as the new Audi Smart Watch, which cannot only start a car's engine but lock and unlock the doors with an app.

It was an impressive new functionality for Audi's auto-piloted driving system, which had accomplished an even more complicated feat the day prior. Five journalists had taken turns "driving" an auto-piloted Audi A7 the 560 miles from Silicon Valley to Sin City, flaunting Audi's status as the first automaker to receive an autonomous driving permit to operate on public roads from the state of California last September.

Audi said it was the longest drive at highway speeds ever conducted with members of the public behind the wheel, letting it maneuver itself at speeds up to 70 mph, change lanes, pass other vehicles and accelerate and brake on its own. Some of its journalist drivers delighted in holding both hands out the driver-side window as they passed unsuspecting motorists, as Audi demonstrated in a video screened before the CES crowd.

The piloted driving A7 uses a system of long- and mid-range radar sensors already integrated into many production cars that allow them to detect surroundings. Among them are adaptive cruise control to maintain a set following distance and Audi side assist that completes a 360-degree view of the car's environs. Laser scanners in the front grille and rear bumper help it differentiate between fixed and moving objects, while four cameras in the A7's front and rear and a wide-angle 3D video help detect close-range traffic.

Audi also showcased a new laser light that it will incorporate into the next generation of its R8 super car. Laser headlights are significantly stronger than LEDs, according to Hackenberg, and throw a longer beam for better visibility.

BMW lasers its way to collision avoidance with better headlights

Like Audi, BMW also let drivers behind the wheel of a demonstration vehicle this week to showcase its new 360-degree collision avoidance system. BMW staff offered just one piece of advice.

"They were encouraged to try to crash the car," said Moritz Werling, lead engineer for the German automaker's 360-degree system, which uses laser scanners mounted on four sides of an all-electric i3 to determine the distance between it and surrounding obstacles.

Offering higher-resolution images than radar- and sonar-based sensors, the lasers scan light reflected by potential obstacles to build up a map that estimates those obstacles' position, then avoids them by applying the brakes as necessary.

BMW calls it an "active" collision avoidance system, in that drivers still control the vehicle. BMW, after all, continues to pride itself on building the ultimate driving machine, "and we think people will still love to drive BMWs themselves," Werling said.

The car only intervenes by applying the brakes to avoid impacts. The steering wheel remains in the driver's control.

BMW research revealed that most collisions occur at speeds of about 10 mph, which was the impetus for the 360-degree collision avoidance system, Werling said.

On BMW's i3 demonstration vehicle, the four laser scanners are located just below the front and rear license plates and just above the front wheels on the sides. Each scanner rotates, taking pictures of its surroundings 20 times a second and optimizing how the car brakes far more quickly than a human driver can react.

"The laser scanners really get when things start to move, when the surroundings start to deviate from what was perceived a second earlier," Werling said.

As for the real-world application of laser scanners' interventionist braking in actual cars, Werling said only one laser scanner is likely in early production vehicles, and only in the front of the car.

The front of the car was also the location for another type of laser technology BMW demonstrated at CES. An M4 Concept with so-called Laserlight headlamps can shine a beam of lasers about one-third of a mile in front of the vehicle. It can also illuminate corners well before a turn and spot people or animals at night from as far away as 300 feet -- about double the forward projection area of a conventional HID or LED headlamp.

"Everybody's thinking when they hear laser that it's dangerous, but it's not," said Thomas Hausmann, BMW laser light engineer. "You have a laser inside the headlamps, but before the laser light comes out, it's converted with a yellow buffer to bright white light. They don't glare at others."

Hausmann said Laserlight is up to 10,000 times brighter than LEDs, and is even more compact, lightweight and energy efficient. It is also more costly. Laserlight is available as an option on the i8 hybrid super car BMW released last year, but only in Europe and for an $11,000-plus premium.

The system demonstrated on the M4 Concept at CES is the next generation of Laserlight technology, in that it's able to "bend" or rotate. Each laser headlamp can turn independently to shine more light toward the side when needed. Another benefit: lasers' ability to project lines of light on the pavement in front of the car that show the driver its exact width and helps guide the vehicle through narrow spaces.

Ford experiments with 'smart mobility' to address population growth, air pollution

Envisioning "a world where vehicles talk to one another, drivers and vehicles communicate with the city infrastructure to relieve congestion, and people routinely share vehicles or multiple forms of transportation for their daily commute," Ford Motor Co. chief executive Mark Fields announced more than two dozen experiments the company will conduct in countries around the world with the hope of helping address several "megatrends": population growth, an expanding middle class, public health and shifting consumer behaviors in urban areas.

Of the 25 experiments beginning this year, eight will take place in North America, seven in Asia, one in South America and nine in Europe and Africa.

In New York and London, Ford will deploy a small fleet of mini-buses that seat up to 10 passengers and will be shared among commuters, who use a smartphone app to schedule pickups and dropoffs on demand, instead of on a fixed schedule. In Atlanta, Ford has partnered with Georgia Tech on a project called Parking Spotter that uses cars' built-in sensors to search for available parking spaces and relay that information to a database in the cloud that other drivers can access, making it easier to not only find an open spot but navigate to it, the goal being reduced fuel use and CO2 emissions.

In Ford's home city of Dearborn, Mich., the company is enlisting 200 of its own employees to voluntarily allow data collection from their vehicles' sensors to better understand their driving behavior. How fast they drive, how many times they brake, where they travel and how much gas they use will all be analyzed to design features in cars that better match real-world use.

In Palo Alto, Ford has developed sensor kits for a project called Info Cycle, which will allow the company to understand how bicycles are used and might be incorporated into future transportation plans.

"We have this unique opportunity to understand how people ride bikes and what the biking ecosystem looks like," said Ford research engineer Sudipto Aich. "With that kind of knowledge, we can bridge the gap between cars and bikes and really uncover the problems of how they share roads."

Toyota frees up its fuel-cell technology to advance hydrogen cause

Much like Tesla, which made the intellectual property for its electric vehicle technology available for free last summer, Toyota announced Monday that it will make 5,680 of its patents for fuel-cell technology available without the need to pay royalties. The move solidifies Toyota's position that hydrogen is the fuel of the future and urges others to the cause by freeing its technology research, much of it developed for the Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that will be available in California later this year.

The patent announcement Toyota made Monday is the first time the company has offered its intellectual property for free. The patents are available to automakers who intend to make and sell hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, as well as companies that make parts for them and energy companies that will supply fuel. Intended for the transportation sector, patents specific to fuel cell vehicles themselves will be available for royalty-free licensing through the end of 2020.

"The first-generation hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, launched between 2015 and 2020, will be critical, requiring a concerted effort and unconventional collaboration between automakers, government regulators, academia and energy providers," Toyota vice president of automotive operations Bob Carter said in a statement. "By eliminating traditional corporate boundaries, we can speed the development of new technologies and move into the future of mobility more quickly, effectively and economically."

Exceptionally high development costs and infrastructure issues have restricted the production of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to a small handful of automakers, including General Motors, Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz.

Almost 2,000 of the patents Toyota will make available relate to the fuel stacks themselves, according to a Toyota press statement released Monday; 290 have to do with the carbon-fiber-reinforced hydrogen fuel tanks and more than 3,000 are for the software that manages the fuel cell system.

Volkswagen deploys Golf for autonomous driving, gesture controls

Making its CES debut this year, Germany's populist automaker continues to pour most of its R&D dollars into its globally bestselling Golf hatchback, which, for CES, was used to demonstrate many of the trends that are likely to show up in production vehicles sooner rather than later.

Like Mercedes with its F 015 and Hyundai with its Cockpit Concept, Volkswagen is embracing gesture controls as a means of reducing driver distraction. Specifically, it's figured out a system of hand gestures to open and close the sunroof and adjust the seats. Swipe a hand toward the windshield, and it closes the sunroof; swipe it away and it opens. Likewise, a hand moving laterally at the driver's or front passenger's seat activates a proximity detection system that will move the seats back and forth or up and down.

VW's automotive sign language uses a 3D camera mounted in the roof module to read hand gestures. Drivers "log on" by spreading the fingers of a hand so the system doesn't misread the gesture and activate something else. Instead of touching a screen with an index finger, the driver simply moves it through the air to select a control and confirms it with a virtual button push. When the driver closes his fingers, the command is presumed to be terminated.

High-resolution proximity sensors are employed to control the infotainment system. One finger adjusts audio volume, two fingers adjust navigation volume and three fingers change telephone volume.

Automotive research firm JD Power has repeatedly found that drivers struggle to understand their vehicles' touch and voice commands. In seeming acknowledgment, Volkswagen has built in a redundant system of touch controls in a cockpit that is otherwise button free, much like the Tesla Model S, which does not have a single button in its cockpit and instead activates most functions with a touch screen.

Perhaps more useful in VW's suite of new high tech is a feature called parking guide, which finds available parking spaces using ultrasonic sensors installed in vehicles with park-assist features. While driving past parking spaces in areas that have been mapped, the car senses when a spot is open and relays it to a computing center in the cloud, which car crowd sources parking information from multiple vehicles anonymously. It isn't real-time data; rather, it gathers occupation rates based on common patterns during a specific time of day and street section.

The guide was one of several parking features Volkswagen showed off, including remote-controlled parking. Using a smartphone or wearable device, a driver can exit a car and direct it to drive into the parking space by itself. If the car is out of sight, the driver can even observe how it's doing through the smartphone or wearable.

Remote-controlled parking is potentially useful for the inductive charging system Volkswagen also showed for its all-electric e-Golf. Instead of connecting the e-Golf to a charger with a cable, it is parked over a charging plate that transfers energy from a coil in the floor to the batteries in the car without the two ever making physical contact.

Hyundai animates head-up displays and pairs them with wearable wrist bands

Head-up displays that project dashboard information onto the windshield directly in front of the driver are nothing new. Designed to keep drivers' eyes on the road, without needing to look down for speed and navigation data, HUDs, as they are called, have been steadily trickling down from the sports car where they have been commonplace to more economy-oriented brands, such as Hyundai.

At this year's CES, the Korean automaker built on the HUD system that exists in the 2015 Genesis sport sedan. In addition to displaying navigation directions and blind-spot information in a field of vision that appears 6 feet ahead of the driver, its new "augmented reality" HUD animates the information with graphics instead of mere words and numbers. If the augmented system senses a dangerous intersection, it will flash a warning triangle in the driver's field of vision and highlight critical street signs, among other things.

Like BMW and Mercedes, which, at last year's CES, demonstrated wearable gadgets such as Google Glass and the Samsung Galaxy Gear wristwatch to aid with parking and navigation, Hyundai demonstrated a wearable wrist band that connects with the augmented HUD system. The band vibrates when a driver unintentionally veers outside his lane of traffic and monitors the driver's heart rate, in case it changes dramatically, in which case the wrist band can automatically dial 911.

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