On the Road to Smarter Cars

The auto industry is seeing profound changes, fueled by increased urban congestion and the high number of preventable fatalities each year (nearly 90 percent of the 10 million annual accidents result from human error).  That’s why novel solutions are being worked on to help re-imagine the way a vehicle can get from point A to point B.

While the technology for fully driverless cars is almost there (many conjecture 5-10+ years out), legislation remains a major hurdle, as does public perception. Legislation is held up because it is unclear who should be blamed in an accident – the auto manufacturer, the software developer, the passenger? Many states have legalized experimental rides, but in terms of public use, vehicle regulations are not there yet. And individuals themselves have concerns. For starters, how would a vehicle be able to make a moral decision? Let's say there is an obstacle that necessitates avoidance, would the car know if it were OK to veer out of the way? If an accident were to be inevitable, how would a machine know the best approach to take?

While the aim of many companies is to eventually have driverless vehicles, cars on the road today already have the capability to self-park, adjust speed depending upon traffic flow, and do much more thanks to smarter embedded technologies. Using a combination of GPS technology to gather directional info, lasers and sensors to ID nearby objects, and impressive data analyzing software to determine the necessary action, these advanced driver assistance systems are designed to help make for a safer driving experience. Here’s a rundown on new vehicle tech lingo: 

  • Rear cameras: Come 2018, rear cameras will be mandatory in new vehicles, helping to prevent back-up accidents like hitting a child or pet. Technology continues to refine to make backing up easier –  vehicles can not only see what is behind you, but have sensors to alert you if you are approaching an object. 
  • Forward collision warning/assist: These systems, which are radar, laser, and/or camera based, can help mitigate crashes by providing cues (visual, auditory, and/or physical) to warn you of a pending crash. Some can take action and apply a braking force to further help reduce the chance of a crash.
  • Blind spot monitoring: Similar to the above, these systems scan areas to avoid crashes, but instead of looking in front they look on the sides and rear side of the car to help prevent blind-spot related accidents. Some will give you a signal in your side-view mirror; others will have audible alerts like a loud beep. And likewise to the above, some provide corrective braking to help prevent an accident
  • Rear cross traffic alerts: These alerts are designed to help prevents accidents that would happen from those crossing behind a vehicle, like someone with a shopping cart or a cyclist. Some will send audible cues, others can go a step further and engage the brakes to prevent a collision.
  • Lane departure warning/assist: These tools help make you aware if you are straying over a lane without signaling. Start to veer, and you’ll get an alert (ie. steering wheel vibrates), or even corrective action (braking or steering assist) to keep you in the right lane.
  • Parking assist: Features vary from car to car, with some assisting in parking and others that can completely automate the task for you.
  • Driver alerts: Some vehicle systems have drowsiness detection tools that can ensure a driver is alert while on the road. Alerts will let you know if you appear to be fatiguing behind the wheel.
  • Adaptive cruise control: Sensors on the front of your car will automatically detect if you are going too fast and getting too close to the car in front of you.  The car will then slow itself down using the engine and brakes to maintain a safe distance.

Even with all of these new tools, it is still imperative for the driver to stay alert and responsive. Many of these technologies will provide assistance, but still require a driver to perform particular tasks.  And similar to when infotainment systems were first introduced, these safety-add ons may be overwhelming for some or confusing for others. It’s important that whatever features are engaged are properly understood and are not more distracting than helpful to the driver. It’s also important not to become too reliant on these systems, as they are not perfected yet. Environmental conditions (rain, snow, etc.), poor lane markings, or limited mapping of an area may also affect the functionality of these systems. The good news though: experts have already seen a reduction in crashes thanks to some of these systems. So here's to the road ahead!