As we race to a future of self-driving cars, many argue it won’t happen in South Africa. But, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, it’s already here.
The future of the automobile is here. You only need look in your rear-view mirror. There’s a good chance that one of those cars you see is an Audi or a Subaru or a Ford or a BMW that has an assisted driving feature activated.
That means, on a current Audi A5, a “lane assist” feature that alerts drivers when they are veering over lane demarcations, “active lane assist” that steers the vehicle back into a lane when it detects the car moving over the lines, and “side assist” that detects vehicles coming up in the next lane when the driver signals a lane change – even forcing the car back into its own lane.
In the new Land Rover Discovery, an Autonomous Emergency Braking system spots potential collisions and applies brakes automatically if an accident is anticipated. It has a form of self-driving as well, with an off-road feature called All-Terrain Progress Control, which allows the driver to hand control over to the vehicle when the terrain is particularly difficult. The driver steers while the ATPC takes over all other functions, including braking, applying torque to the wheels, individually, for maximum traction, and controlling the speed.
In the Subaru XV, EyeSight Driver Assist Technology comprises two colour cameras positioned near the rear-view mirror. They monitor traffic movement, and feed the information to an artificial intelligence systems that fine tunes cruise control automatically and keeps an eye on unintended lane changes. It also features Pre-Collision Braking, in effect watching for cars that brake suddenly in front or – that perennial South African road hazard – cars cutting in dangerously.
The new Ford Fusion features the whole bang-shoot of automated safety, from Adapative Cruise Control that slows the car if it detects traffic ahead, to automated perpendicular parking and park-out assist for getting out of tight spots. Cross-Traffic Alert is like having a built-in assistant to warn of approaching traffic when a car is backing out of a driveway or parking spot.
The cherry on top is Pre-Collision Assist with Pedestrian Detection, which warns of potential collisions with both cars and pedestrians. The brakes instantly “precharge” and increase sensitivity for full responsiveness when the brakes are applied – which happens automatically if the driver doesn’t respond to the alarm.
The Volvo CX90 features all of the above, along with City Safety, designed to avoid collisions in slow-moving, stop-and-go city traffic. It brakes automatically, avoiding or helping to reduce the effects of a collision.
Every one of the above is a car I’ve tested on the South African roads. In the automobile industry, science fiction is not fiction anymore.
It’s not a great leap for such features to evolve to fully automated driving as well. The big catch, aside from the law, is that none of them are cheap, and none are aimed at the mass market. Yet.
In cars, future shock is no longer about how much of driving can be automated. It’s about how much of that automation can be built into mass-market cars.
The biggest shock comes when the high-end features like reverse cameras suddenly appear in entry-level cars. The nippy little Ford Fiesta ST2000 may not be a beginner car, but it points the way. It already features rear-view colour cameras for safer reversing, and AvanceTrac, which automatically applies brakes and adjusts engine torque when it detects wheelslip.
The true breakthrough, for the ordinary driver, will come when standard features in all cars include lane-assist and park-assist, as well as the predictive braking systems appearing in the high-end vehicles. That will gradually prepare drivers for their next upgrade: the self-driving vehicle, or at least a significant turn of the wheel closer to that dream.
Laws will have to evolve to allow for many of these changes, but that is already beginning, says Trevor Hill, Head of Audi South Africa.
“Germany will soon change its legislation, then the USA, probably in parallel, and then the rest of the world will follow,” he says. “But you have to have infrastructure, you have to have lines in the road. In Polokwane right now, an autonomous vehicle would end up in the bush. The sensors in the car will need to read the road markings, as well the traffic.
“But this will all happen in time. Once we get this technology into South Africa, we can start to explain to authorities what the benefits are. This will save lives. If you could put the current predictive braking features on trucks and taxis, you would save a lot of lives. But then everyone has to do it, because if one car brakes suddenly and others don’t, you have a problem.
“There are real safety benefits, though. Once costs come down and it becomes standard, most cars will get it. The technology is there; you just have to put it in the cars.”
The current Audi A5, already on South African roads, is a car of the future, available today, and does not need any change in law to be allowed on the roads. Like the Land Rover Discovery and Ford Fusion, it can detect a collision about to happen, with a technology called “pre sense”, which applies brakes automatically. That is just the beginning.
The new Audi A8, revealed in Barcelona a few months ago and due to arrive in South Africa next year, has built in numerous new features that also improve both autonomy and safety, without flouting any laws.
It features a parking space finder, similar to that of the Ford Fusion, which scans for open parking spaces. Chances are that the next model will drive itself to and from parking spaces after it drops you off at the front door of a building. It’s safety features are right out of the future.
“If the car is about to be hit from the side, it will first try to avoid accident. But, if it is unavoidable, the side of the car lifts 8cm so that it exposes the underside of car and distributes the impact, protecting passengers from the direct impact. An artificial intelligence active suspension means electronic actuators on the wheels smooths out potholes, bumps, and rough surfaces.”
It’s not only about safety and comfort, however. Hill presents a fascinating vision for the role of the self-driving car: “With autonomous driving, we want to create a 25th hour for the customer. The hour spent driving can become productive time in the car, in effect giving you an extra hour to get things done.”
The promised delivery date for autonomous vehicles, from most manufacturers, is 2021. It cannot come a day too soon.
- Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.
Cars connect to traffic lights
New Jaguar Land Rover technology using Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2X) connects cars to traffic lights so drivers can avoid getting stuck at red and help free up traffic flow in cities.
The world’s first traffic lights were installed exactly 150 years ago outside the Houses of Parliament in London. Since then drivers around the globe have spent billions of hours waiting for green. With Jaguar Land Rover’s latest tech, however, their days could be numbered.
The Green Light Optimal Speed Advisory (GLOSA) system allows cars to “talk” to traffic lights and inform the driver the speed they should drive as they approach junctions or signals.
Widespread adoption of the V2X technology will prevent drivers from racing to beat the lights and improve air quality by reducing harsh acceleration or braking near lights. The goal is for the V2X revolution to create free-flowing cities with fewer delays and less commuter stress.
The connected technology is currently being trialed on a Jaguar F-PACE, as part of a £20 million (R371 million) collaborative research project.
Like all Jaguar or Land Rover vehicles today, the F-PACE already boasts a wide range of sophisticated Advanced Driver Assistance (ADAS) features. The connected technology trials are enhancing existing ADAS features by increasing the line of sight of a vehicle when it is connected via the internet to other vehicles and infrastructure. GLOSA is being tested alongside a host of other measures to slash the time commuters spend in traffic.
For example, Intersection Collision Warning (ICW) alerts drivers when it is unsafe to proceed at a junction. ICW informs drivers if other cars are approaching from another road and can suggest the order in which cars should proceed at a junction.
Jaguar Land Rover has also addressed time lost to searching for a parking space by providing real-time information of available spaces to drivers and developed an Emergency Vehicle Warning to alert motorists when a fire engine, police car or ambulance is approaching. The advanced technology builds on the connected systems already available on the Jaguar F-PACE such as Adaptive Cruise Control.
Oriol Quintana-Morales, Jaguar Land Rover Connected Technology Research Engineer, said: “This cutting-edge technology will radically reduce the time we waste at traffic lights. It has the potential to revolutionise driving by creating safe, free-flowing cities that take the stress out of commuting. Our research is motivated by the chance to make future journeys as comfortable and stress-free as possible for all our customers.”
The trials are part of the £20 million government-funded project, UK Autodrive, which has helped accelerate the development of Jaguar Land Rover’s future self-driving and connected technology. As well as strengthening the Midlands’ position as a hub of mobility innovation. Britain’s biggest car maker, headquartered in Coventry, is working on connected technology as part of its pledge to deliver zero accidents, zero congestion and zero emissions.
Connected technology will link the vehicle to everything around it, allowing seamless, free-flowing traffic that will pave the way for delivering self-driving vehicles.
Roborace reveals new vehicle
Roborace has given its fans a first look at what the new competition vehicle for Season Alpha will look like at the WebSummmit conference in Lisbon, Portugal.
DevBot 2.0 utilizes sensors similar to that in Robocar and is also fully electric, but has the addition of a cockpit for a human driver.
Season Alpha will see teams comprising of both a human driver and an AI driver. Lap times from the duo will be compared with that of other human + machine teams to determine a winner.
DevBot 2.0 will be launched in the new year but Roborace CEO Lucas Di Grassi has shared some first glimpses of what 2019 holds for the series in an interview on stage at WebSummit.
Season Alpha will see teams compete starting in Spring 2019 using the DevBot 2.0 vehicles to develop their automated driving systems, with professional drivers teaching the AI how to improve, as well as learning from the AI how to better their own performance.