Self-Driving Tech Veers into Mid-Range Cars

Sensor technologies once limited to luxury cars are increasingly available in the mass market.

Fully autonomous self-driving cars are still far from the market, but a wide range of features—including sensor systems that warn of lane departures and imminent crashes, and can even apply the brakes if you don’t—are rapidly showing up in midmarket cars.

Drowsy driver: If the 2013 Ford Fusion detects you drifting out of your lane without the turn signal on, the steering wheel will vibrate, a chime will sound, and a coffee-cup icon will appear on the dashboard. If you don’t respond, it can self-steer back to the center of the road.

Take the Ford Taurus and Fusion: in 2013, you can get a radar system that senses if you are about to rear-end another car. It flashes red warning LEDs in the windshield, and even preprimes the brakes, building up pressure so that when you do tap the brakes, you’ll get full stopping power.

These kinds of high-tech features have been available for years in luxury cars, especially high-end Mercedes and Volvo models. Now they’re going mainstream. “It’s the democratization of advanced driver assistance technology into high-volume cars,” says Mark Boyadjis, a senior analyst for automotive research at IHS iSuppli. “The biggest trend is going to be these technologies finally making their way outside of the luxury space.”

Beyond crash warnings and the related technology of adaptive cruise-control—which keeps you locked at a fixed distance behind the car in front of you when you’ve got cruise control switched on—there are ultrasonic systems that allow the car to sense a parking space and park itself, and cameras that keep track of lane markings, keep an eye on blind spots, and warn if you are about to bump into something while backing up.

The 2013 Honda Accord, for example, will get forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems and blind-spot detection systems. The Toyota Camry got blind-spot detection in 2012. GM’s Chevy Equinox, Buick Encore, and GMC Terrain, along with the Dodge Charger and other Chrysler models, are among the models that started getting forward-looking collision-warning systems in 2012. “You see steps toward autonomous driving—that’s exactly the transition that’s sharpening, and that’s what this is the beginning of,” says John Capp, director of active safety technologies at GM.

Automakers are combining sensor data, too. GM, for example, is touting sensor fusion in its 2013 Cadillac XTS. While a front-mounted radar unit has an 18-degree field of view, allowing you to see another car cutting into your lane only after it’s partway there, adding a camera with a 45-degree view angle and fusing the data provides earlier warning and smoother automated deceleration if necessary. “Camera and radar systems talking to each other are starting to show up on the marketplace, and this progression will go on,” Capp added.

Blind spotting: This wing-mirror-mounted camera is part of a system that warns when you are veering from the lane, or about to crash.

Some studies have shown that such features can reduce accidents and insurance claims. That’s a clear benefit, considering that 32,788 people were killed in vehicle crashes in 2010 in the United States alone, and that driver distraction is increasing.

The trend toward more active safety technologies is not being driven by regulatory mandates. Rather, the industry is responding to the falling costs of sensors and computers that drive the systems, and to a growing awareness of the technologies’ marketing benefit in showrooms, says Steven Bayless, director of telecommunications and telematics at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a nonprofit industry and advisory group.

“The fact is, the auto industry is taking a cue from the consumer electronics and IT industries, and realizing people are buying cars because of their geek value and because of the technology in them,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be the Google driverless car. It can be a simple system with ultrasound or a camera that lights up a warning on the dashboard or rearview mirror. Those are, potentially, selling points that do not carry a huge incremental cost.”

Some models are moving to electrified steering—eliminating the clunky hydraulic system for an electrically actuated system. Electrified steering not only increases fuel efficiency but allows for things like automated parallel parking. With a few ultrasonic sensors on the bumper, the driver only has to keep his foot on the brakes to control the speed, and the car takes over the steering for parallel parking.

As more models become saturated with sensing technologies, the next big shift could see cars transmit data between each other. When cars network with one another, they can broadcast data about rapid slowdowns or a wheel-slippage possibly caused by icing. Such information will hop among cars—including ones coming in the other direction—to notify drivers approaching the problem areas. “As we advance, there will be a much bigger need to connect those two systems [data collection and data transfer],” says Boyadjis.

Of course, Mercedes and Volvo—long among the industry’s leaders both in innovating and deploying such technology—are not standing still. Volvo last year even demonstrated “road trains,” in which a row of closely spaced Volvos autonomously follow a lead truck, like a set of bicyclists drafting each other. This could help avoid traffic jams and reduce fuel consumption.

“It’s a continuous evolution of these technologies,” says Alan Hall, director of technology communications at Ford. “We view these and develop them as safety features, and it’s really about moving beyond passive safety.”

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