WCIT2010: The Dream of Autonomous Driving
Imagine getting up in the morning, putting on your clothes and immediately stepping into your car. While you start driving off to work you make yourself some breakfast, check your e-mail, read up on the daily news, and make some last minute changes to the presentation you are about to give that morning. Just when you’ve finished your second cup of coffee, your car pulls to a halt, for you have arrived at the office.
While this may sound very futuristic and Jetsons-like, autonomous driving is in fact right around the corner. The latest developments in Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) provide us with technology that can take over a lot of driving tasks during a typical commute. While it may be a long shot to dream of living room vehicles operating entirely automatic – picking you up at exactly the time it needs to by synchronizing with your online agenda, calculating the exact duration of travel by processing live traffic information – the technology may in fact already be here to start working towards such a goal.
Working our way through a jungle of abbreviations, we will see that some of the most advanced safety systems currently found on the market, can form the basis for development of truly autonomous driving.
Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC)
Already available in some luxury vehicles for over 10 years, ACC is a system that measures the distance to the car in front of you and automatically adapts your speed to keep a certain distance. Where these systems were first only able to adapt within a certain small range of highway speeds, Toyota introduced an ‘all-speed tracking function’ in 2006. This system would work in the full range of 0 to 100 km/h, and was designed for city- and congestion driving.
Lane Departure Warning System (LDWS)
Where ACC controls the linear forward motion of the car, development of autonomous driving also calls for computer control of the lateral motion. Starting in 2000, several cars were introduced that could warn the driver when the car threatened to leave the current lane without signaling. Newer systems, especially coming from Japanese carmakers, apply several techniques that not only warn the driver, but actually keep the car in the appropriate lane. The Honda Inspire has a Lane Keep Assist System (LKAS) which provides additional steering torque to keep the car in the right lane, and the Nissan Infiniti equips the vehicle’s stability control system to apply brake pressure to some of the wheels to adjust the vehicle’s course.
Lane Change Assistance (LCA)
Fully autonomous driving would require automatic and safe lane changes, so the car needs to detect other cars around it and their speeds. Volvo has developed the Blind Spot Information System (BLIS), which utilizes a camera to detect vehicles in the driver’s blind spot and provides an audible and visible warning. The 2010 Infiniti M by Nissan will not only warn the driver but also counter steer when detecting a potential hazard during a lane change.
Traffic Sign Recognition (TSR)
In order to drive autonomously without giving its owner a heart attack or a pile of speeding fines, the car needs to be aware of the traffic rules and regulations. The easiest way to do this within the current infrastructure is to make it read traffic signs. Mercedes and BMW have been equipping their high-end cars with TRS for over a year now. However, TRS currently only recognizes speed limits, but it’s easy to see the possibilities for more advanced sign recognition.
Already seen in a variety of cars are automatic parking systems (no abbreviations here), these systems range from assisting the driving in parking, to actually autonomously parallel park without requiring the driver to be in the car. The latter was only seen in last year’s Volkswagens, but is expected to become more common very soon.
Automatic Navigation and Traffic Message Channel (TMC)
Nowadays, everyone is familiar with in-vehicle GPS navigation systems, and the importance of a navigation system to autonomous driving is obvious. However, what happens when unexpected situations occur, like detours, closed roads, or accidents? It is important to have live and accurate information about traffic and traffic flow on the intended route. Using TMC, the traffic supervising authority can easily broadcast information to navigation systems, warn about possible detours or delays, and even provide advice on a new or quicker route.
Vehicle to Vehicle Communication (V2V)
What’s really important in autonomous driving is tying all these systems together and turning them into active control systems rather than the passive safety systems they currently are made to be. A great help in making this an active system would be continuous and real-time communication between every ‘intelligent’ vehicle. By applying this V2V, vehicles can make each other aware of their position, their speed and their active safety systems, to make action selection easier and accurate. General Motors has been testing a fleet of cars equipping V2V since 2005, and while developments are slow, the possibilities are promising.
Platooning and swarming
Building upon V2V, there are many possibilities for improving the flow of traffic. On a small-scale, V2V would allow platooning. A platoon is a train-like formation of multiple intelligent and communicating cars, driving extremely close to each other. The continuous communication between the cars in the platoon ensures that they will brake simultaneously when needed, and does not have to take into account human reaction time. Driving in a platoon has aerodynamic advantages, thereby cutting fuel consumption and allowing for much higher speeds at the same efficiency.
On a larger scale, V2V could allow swarming. A swarm differs from a platoon in the sense that it can contain a larger amount of cars, a much larger distance apart. In fact, a swarm could contain multiple platoons. The swarm is a network of all the intelligent cars on a road, that is used to exchange information about traffic flow. If you take into account the fact that traffic congestions are a wave-phenomenon generally caused by an occurrence multiple kilometers ahead, the importance of knowing what is happening several kilometers down the road becomes evident. A swarm controls itself and its flow by keeping its ‘members’ up to date with the bigger picture.
What does the future look like, then?
Fully autonomous driving vehicles are not likely to hit the market soon, but the technological developments look promising for movement in that direction. In the meantime, it also provides designers and engineers with new inspiration, dreams, and fields to explore. Will we ever commute to work in a mobile living room like the ATNMBL? It’s not at all impossible.