[nfb-talk] autonomous vehicles

Michael Bullis mabullis at hotmail.com
Fri Dec 12 01:07:48 UTC 2008

This article from today's Economist talks about progress in self driving
Mike Bullis

Stopping in a hurry. . 
Cars are getting better at avoiding collisions. Before long they may be
communicating with each other to make roads safer 
VOLVO'S new XC60 sport-utility vehicle comes, as you might expect of the
safety-conscious Swedish carmaker, with a number of features designed to
look after
its occupants in the event of a collision. It has airbags, rollover and
side-impact protection and so forth. But it is also fitted with mechanisms
to help
avoid a crash in the first place, including an automated braking system. As
more cars acquire features that can assist a driver in a dangerous
or even take control, the rules of the road may need rethinking. 
The Volvo system, called City Safety, operates at up to 30kph (19mph). This
speed range was chosen because it is when most collisions take place,
rear-end shunts in slow-moving traffic. City Safety uses a laser sensor
fitted behind the windscreen to scan the road ahead, calculating relative
and distances. It applies the brakes if a collision cannot be avoided. (The
system switches off at very low speeds, so that drivers can park close to
A number of carmakers already have or are introducing automated-braking
systems. Germany's Daimler uses a radar-based one in some of its
Mercedes-Benz vehicles.
Called Distronic, it also operates at high speed and adjusts both braking
and acceleration to maintain a constant distance from other cars. If a
seems likely a warning is given. When the driver puts his foot on the brake
pedal the system automatically applies the optimum pressure required to
hitting the car in front. If the driver fails to respond, the brakes come on
automatically. Staying on the road 
These so-called "intelligent" vehicle-safety systems have the potential to
make roads a lot safer, according to a new study by VTT Technical Research
a big contract-research organisation based in Finland. It reckons the most
promising is electronic stability-control, which can improve a car's
by detecting and helping to prevent a skid. The centre calculates that if
this system alone were fitted to all the vehicles in Europe it would reduce
number of people killed on the roads there by almost 17%. Devices designed
to prevent a driver straying from a motorway lane would reduce deaths by
15%. Those warning drivers about speed limits and other hazards would cut
fatalities by 13%. Some of these systems may be combined; the forward-facing
camera that monitors road markings for the lane-departure system in the new
BMW 7 Series, for instance, is also capable of recognising speed signs and
displaying the limit on the dashboard. 
Eventually these safety systems will make their way from expensive cars to
most models, just as anti-lock brakes have. This will make cars much more
of their surroundings. Even smarter stuff is coming. Jan Ivarsson, head of
safety at Volvo, believes it should be possible to build a car in which
will not be killed or injured. The company is experimenting with devices
that would automatically steer away from an oncoming vehicle. Such a car
also spot a pedestrian stepping into the road and brake. 
In 2009 Daimler will introduce a device that warns drivers of fatigue. It
uses multiple sensors to set up a profile of the way someone drives and
the alarm if he departs from it. In particular, it monitors steering
behaviour; which, when it becomes a bit erratic, is a good indicator of
Daimler is also working on ways to make cars brake at red traffic lights. 
Many of these safety systems at first give warning of impending danger
before taking over. Despite that potential delay they still provide what
Schöneburg, Daimler's head of passive safety, has described as an
"electronic crumple zone": applying the brakes a bit late rather than not at
all will
at least reduce the impact of a collision. 
Yet sometimes there is no room for any delay in avoiding an accident, for
instance when a vehicle jumps a stop sign at a busy junction. This means
systems will need to become even more autonomous in order to act faster;
faster, probably, than people can. But because cars will be acting
of each other, this raises safety concerns of its own. 
Researchers worry, for example, about what might happen if a child ran into
a busy road. If one car automatically slammed on its brakes and swerved, it
could prompt others to take evasive action. The result of all these
automatic, independent decisions could be a pile-up causing more deaths,
injuries and
damage than there would have been had drivers remained in charge. So some
researchers are now looking at ways in which vehicles could co-ordinate
crash-avoidance manoeuvres. This means that in an emergency cars would have
to tell each other at once what they were about to do, says Thomas Batz of
the Fraunhofer Institute for Information and Data Processing in Karlsruhe,
His work is part of a broader project on "cognitive automobiles" involving
other groups, including the University of Karlsruhe and the Technical
in Munich. Last year some of the researchers entered the Urban Challenge, an
event organised by the American government's Defense Advanced Research
Agency (DARPA) to produce vehicles capable of operating autonomously in a
city. DARPA wants to use such technology to produce robotic vehicles for
convoys in areas of conflict. Taking charge 
Mr Batz and his colleagues are devising software that can gather information
from vehicles' sensors and use it to co-ordinate group behaviour in an
Although the project is still at the simulator stage, it has already shown
that one car in a group driving along a road will have to be nominated as
This shortens the lines of command for split-second decisions. The group
co-ordinator could, for instance, order two vehicles travelling in adjacent
to swerve in the same direction and another to brake sharply or even run off
the road if no obstructions or pedestrians were detected. The system would
also have to cope with the presence of cars with no autonomous functions. 
Carmakers are thinking about such things too. Daimler, for instance,
believes that if details like the weight of vehicles and their rigidity
could be communicated
in the instant before a crash, then protection systems, like pre-tensioning
seat belts, could adjust optimally in anticipation. Volvo's engineers
cars being able to warn each other of hazards such as slippery roads. Some
GPS units already tip each other off about traffic jams. 
Collaborative anti-collision systems will encounter not only engineering
problems, but perhaps legal ones too: whose insurer pays when one vehicle
another to take emergency action, causing it to bump into a third? And no
one is yet sure what the effect will be if semi-autonomous systems relieve
driving load to such an extent that motorists become less alert; a problem
which airline pilots face in computerised cockpits. 
The answer, eventually, may be to let computers take over completely and
drive cars robotically. An S-Class Mercedes with all the extras can already
left largely alone to make its way along a moderately busy and fairly
straight Autobahn . The experience of the DARPA challenge has shown that
with road junctions and traffic queues in cities is becoming possible too,
especially with advances in machine vision. Bit by bit, the day is coming
it will be possible to jump into an empty car and say: "Home, James." . 

More information about the nFB-Talk mailing list