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Autopilot: Coming to luxury car near you, almost

Consumer Reports News: November 08, 2007 09:42 AM

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The group of luxury and ultra-luxury cars we tested for the November issue offers a glimpse into the future, with leading-edge technologies hinting at the next step in accident avoidance and perhaps even automated driving. These upscale models suggest we may be ceding some car control to computers that don't get drowsy or distracted by entertainment systems, on-the-road meals, or the view out the window.

Four of the recently tested cars offer electronic driving aids that if combined and installed on the same car could virtually create an autopilot mode, at least on the highway. Certainly, driving is complex enough that it will be a long time before electronics can substitute for a driver's judgment and forethought, if ever.

In the meantime, automakers are busy building systems that will allow cars to take over and assist with more and more driving functions. Busy, wired consumers have told General Motors in focus groups that they consider driving to be a distraction from their everyday lives. They would rather spend their time getting work done, talking on the phone, e-mailing, reading, or eating than driving, says Larry Burns, GM vice president of research, development, and planning.

Today's automated features
We have written previously about the self-parking feature of the Lexus LS460L ultra-luxury sedan (and demonstrated it in this video). It's not perfect and has trouble aiming the car straight into perpendicular parking spaces. But it does demonstrate a car's ability to "see" and to steer on its own.

Being able to steer is of no use if the car doesn't know where to go. Our Infiniti M35 includes a lane-departure warning system that uses a camera behind the rearview mirror to detect when the car is straying outside its striped lane. Being camera based, it works better on lined highways than on back roads. Combined with electric steering control like that in the LS, a car could theoretically steer itself down the highway.

Our Volvo S80 is full of optional electronic driver aids. It uses a radar system (linked to the active cruise control, illustrated here) to scan the road in front for slower moving cars. If you come up on a car too quickly, it sets off a flashing red light array at the base of the windshield and a warning beeper to alert you to slow down. Cameras under each side mirror watch for cars in the Volvo driver's blind spots, and lights illuminate inside the mirrors to alert you of a car in your blind spot. The system isn't foolproof. It generates frequent false alarms—such as confusing a stone wall for a car—and occasionally doesn't "see" a car that is plainly visible in the mirror.

My favorite electronic driver aid was the S80's radar-guided cruise control system. Such systems automatically slow down the car, then resume speed when there is enough space. Like any cruise control, the driver sets the desired speed, and the car adjusts the throttle to maintain it. But laser-guided cruise control can also slow down when a car ahead slows down or another vehicle cuts in front. The driver sets the following distance, as well as the maximum speed. Although other cars have active cruise, not all of them apply the brakes to slow down, as we have experienced on the tested S80 and BMW 7 Series sedans. (Volvo says it will go one step further, bringing completely autonomous braking in 2009.) The laser-guided cruise control on the Mercedes-Benz S500 can even creep through stop-and-go traffic, though the S80's shuts off below 30 mph. These systems save some effort on a highway commute by not having to work the throttle or adjust the cruise control's speed constantly. With steering control and smart forward visibility, a car could not only stay in its lane, it could also take corrective action. The technological building blocks are there for the car to aid and even control driving in certain conditions.

Next steps
This summer, GM demonstrated its short-range-wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communications system that can keep track of the exact location of other similarly equipped cars using GPS satellite positioning. Such a system could bolster the safety of equipped models by setting off warning alerts or stopping a vehicle automatically. Burns says future versions of the system could eventually even track cars approaching on side streets and, for example, adjust the vehicles' speed so the cars arrive in intersections at different times.

GPS mapping can play other roles, too. For instance, if a topographical map shows that a climb up a hill will be short and a downhill will follow soon, hybrid systems could drain the batteries farther than normal and use only additional electric power to climb the hill, instead of consuming more gas. As soon as the car reaches the downward slope, the batteries would be recharged. Today, hybrids use mainly additional gasoline power to climb hills, because they can't anticipate how long additional power will be needed and whether the batteries have enough capacity to meet that future demand.

These new safety systems have the potential to prevent some crashes and, hopefully, reduce serious injuries. In the process, may also be laying the groundwork to fulfill a Utopian vision of automated highways. It seems that those automated highways of tomorrow may come one car at a time.

-- Eric Evarts

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