The “Jetsons"-like self-driving car of the future is still years, maybe decades, away from becoming an everyday reality.
But a host of autonomous or semiautonomous features are already offered on many of the vehicles featured at this month’s Los Angeles Auto Show.
Beyond adding utility and safety, these features will start the crucial process of building consumer trust in self-driving cars.
“The auto industry is underestimating the difficulties of conveying to consumers the trust they have to give to these machines,” said Thilo Koslowski, vice president and auto industry analyst for Gartner. “Having cars that perform some of these tasks early on is a huge advantage.”
That trust-building process will be particularly important in an era of safety scandals. This year has seen record-setting numbers of auto safety recalls for fatally faulty ignition switches and exploding air bags, among other defects.
Automakers are quickly rolling out features that provide a glimpse into the future of robotic cars — which many experts assure will be much safer than those operated by humans (particularly the drinking, texting, phone-talking variety.) Many of these features were first offered on luxury cars, but they’re now making their way into more affordable machines.
Many vehicles now come standard with features that will monitor blind spots, warn a driver against drifting out of a lane, or emit beeps or seat vibrations if an object is too close for safety.
Others have adaptive cruise control, a technology that can read traffic conditions and automatically direct the car to slow down or speed up. More advanced systems, using combinations of radar, sonar and GPS, can detect an impending wreck and take emergency action, such as slamming on the brakes.
Some automakers are developing advanced parking systems as a precursor to self-driving. Audi, for instance, is developing a technology that enables a driver to leave the vehicle while it parks itself.
That isn’t on the market yet, but Audi, Lexus and other companies already offer vehicles that have varying degrees of “Look Ma, no hands” parking capability. The 2015 Chrysler 200 and Jeep Cherokees will parallel park a car with the driver controlling only the gas and brake.
The vehicles also have a perpendicular park assist. The driver uses the turn signal to tell the car which side to park on. When the car finds an open spot, the driver uses the gas and brake while the car steers. Ford and Volvo have similar systems.
Other vehicles are equipped with emergency braking systems that may save lives.
LandRover’s new Discovery Sport features an Autonomous Emergency Braking system that uses front-facing cameras to detect an impending collision. The system will give the driver an audible alert, then apply full braking automatically if the driver fails to respond.
Volkswagen’s new Touareg, to be displayed at the L.A. Auto Show, includes a Front Assist with AutoBrake option, which is an adaptive cruise control with emergency braking.
The new Hyundai Genesis’ Automatic Emergency Braking will sense that the driver is not braking hard enough, or fast enough, and will apply more braking to avoid a collision. The Chrysler 200 is among a field of cars that can bring themselves to a complete stop under certain circumstances, without a driver’s help, to prevent a forward collision.
Others go a little further. Audi, the first company to get the legal right to test driverless cars on California roads, offers an option on its A6, A7 and A8 cars that will sense a pending forward or rear collision and then prepare for impact by speeding up, or slowing down, then applying brakes, opening the windows slightly, closing the sun roof, tightening the seat belts and straightening up the driver seat.
Volvo will be coming to the L.A. Auto Show with a car from its Drive Me project, a pilot program in which 100 self-driving cars were tested in the Swedish city of Gothenburg. The cars were able to do “lane following, speed adaption and merging traffic all by themselves,” the company said.
The program is part of Volvo’s Vision 2020 program, which the company says holds the promise of no deaths or serious injuries in a Volvo vehicle by 2020.
Volvo’s XC90, the company says, is the first car to feature automatic braking if a driver turns in front of oncoming traffic. It also has a system to protect drivers and passengers by tightening seat belts during a “run-off road scenario.”
Volvo boasts an “adaptive cruise control with Pilot Assist” combination that allows driverless acceleration, braking and steering in stop-and-go traffic.
Honda has already developed and demonstrated similar technology, in which, during freeway driving scenarios, vehicles have managed their own steering, braking, lane changing and merging.
Upcoming Honda vehicles will include a feature with which the car can assess a road hazard and then send information to vehicles behind it — which then would perform automatic lane changes to avoid the hazard.
The next phase of autonomous driving is already in development. Audi said its cars would be capable of “highly automated driving” at speeds up to 40 mph, without driver input, within three to four years.
Cadillac said vehicles in its 2017 lineup would offer customers an advanced driver-assist technology called Super Cruise, which “will offer customers an automated driving experience that includes hands-off lane following, braking and speed control in certain highway driving conditions.”
Koslowski, the analyst, estimated that, by 2018, 20% of new vehicles would be “self-aware,” or capable of making intelligent decisions about speed, direction and collision avoidance — faster, and more accurately, than their human drivers.
“We’re seeing innovations that allow these vehicles to operate more like us, but do the jobs better,” Koslowski said. “Their sensors are better than ours.”