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The Trend towards Connected, Autonomous Cars
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Monday, 14 July 2014
Undoubtedly the most exciting and potentially industry-changing trend in the automotive sector is the implementation of Wi-Fi into vehicles, and the possibilities that come with it. The rapid progression in smart technology is spilling over into the world of cars, as auto-manufacturers aim to keep pace with increasing consumer demand for non-stop connectivity.

Today’s customers place a much higher value on connected services and functionality in vehicles, and while this is a valuable market for car-makers and electronics giants in the present, the future promises to bring a vast range of development which will eventually lead to the completely autonomous car. 
 
Integration of Connected Services:

Historically the auto industry has viewed cars as stand-alone machines, but consumers are increasingly judging connectivity by the standards they expect of other devices. This presents its own challenges for OEM’s as they attempt to replicate the functionality of non-automotive devices, such as smartphones and tablets, while retaining the inherent safety features expected of cars.

The Trend towards Connected, Autonomous CarsThe recent launch of Apple’s iOS 7 along with an improved Siri voice assistant is an interesting development, as the software giant looks to make in-roads into in-car connectivity. The Siri Eyes Free system, when connected to a vehicle, will blank the iPhone display and replicate it on the car’s centre console display, enabling the driver to communicate with the iPhone and its apps via speech recognition. Several manufacturers have already committed to supporting the software, which is in direct competition to Ford’s Microsoft-developed SYNC system.

This could be a sign that the automotive industry is ready to accept that it cannot keep pace with mobile infotainment technology and is handing the initiative over to consumer electronics developers, although at the moment most manufacturers continue to develop their own in-house systems. If third-party developers continue to develop apps for the automotive market, there are question marks over which services should be available while driving, and what information should be displayed on the centre console LCD. At present Ford retains the right to approve or decline which third-party apps can be used by the SYNC system, while Apple’s Siri Eyes Free system will simply not show apps on the screen which are not approved for Eyes Free use. However, the waters may become somewhat muddied as these systems grow, with app developers and vehicle manufacturers having rather different sets of priorities.

Connectivity and Safety :

The relentless pursuit of on-the-go connectivity in vehicles must be tempered by safety requirements and the basic need of the driver to concentrate on driving. While consumers may continue to demand all the features they have become accustomed to on other devices, the automotive industry must address the challenges of driver distraction when using apps and services in-vehicle. Equally the industry must be vigilant in the development and implementation of suitable apps for in-car use, and protection against hacking and malicious software.

Traditionally vehicle electrics were a closed loop system, but the introduction of Wi-Fi means that drivers are able to surf the internet from the vehicles, and download new apps and updates to existing software. With this type of open access there is a danger that malicious software or rogue apps could be downloaded which could cause the car’s infotainment system to crash, or worse still, interfere with the car’s electronic control systems and safety systems.

The Trend towards Connected, Autonomous CarsThis is a very real problem, and just as the consumer electronics industry has produced firewalls, anti-virus software and other types of protection, so the automotive industry will have to develop the means of protecting their systems. Cloud computing could help to resolve this issue by reducing the amount of software that is run locally. As 4G networks improve, the amount of data which can be transferred increases, and as more software is run in the cloud, there will be less possibility of viruses being downloaded to the vehicle. The requirements for vehicle security will eventually become much more robust than those for the consumer electronics industry, as any malicious software could affect critical controls and functions.

Driver distraction is a key issue in terms of safety and connectivity. The most recent developments for interaction with apps and services include voice and gesture controls, with the philosophy of hands-on-the-wheel and eyes-on-the-road firmly behind then. However, recent research conducted by the American Automobile Association has concluded that the use of a voice recognition system which converts speech into text is actually more distracting than using a hand held phone. Researchers found that using a speech-to-text system creates a cognitive distraction, and although the driver’s hands remain on the wheel and eyes on the road, reaction time is significantly impaired.
As the ‘digital native’ generation comes of age in the next few years, it is possible that there may be a shift in mindset. The new generation of consumers may begin to perceive driving as a distraction from connected devices, rather than the devices a distraction from driving; which will drive the evolution towards autonomous vehicles.

The Development of Driverless Cars:

The Trend towards Connected, Autonomous Cars
Figures from ABI research suggest that auto-manufacturers spent over $10 billion on advanced driver assistance systems in 2011, and the company estimates that the amount spent on the development of automated systems could rise to $130 billion by 2016. Despite the heavy investment by car-makers,a revolutionary change is not expected; there is more likely to be a steady shift in a number of stages from assisted driving, to highly autonomous driving, through to fully automated vehicles.

The Intelligence Drive System in the new Mercedes S Class is a leading example of the assisted driving technology available in today’s vehicles. Mercedes have employed a whole suite of sensors across the vehicle to provide data for computer-assisted steering and braking systems designed to avoid or mitigate collisions.

There are four key areas to Mercedes’ technology:

•    The Brake Assist System which uses long and medium range radar along with stereo cameras to detect pedestrians and cross-traffic, and will boost the amount of braking power applied by the driver if the computer detects the risk of a collision.

•    The DISTRONIC PLUS System with Steering Assist, which is designed to actively assist the driver to stay in lane. It incorporates an adaptive cruise control system which maintains a steady distance from the car in front at speeds up to 200 km/h, while integral cameras identify lane markings for the computer system to follow.

•    The Active Lane Keeping Assistance which is enabled at speeds of over 60 km/h, monitors traffic around the vehicle via short and long range radar. If the car drifts across lanes or the driver tries to change lane when another vehicle is present, the system sounds a warning and causes the steering wheel to vibrate. It will also apply the necessary braking to the opposite wheels to steer the vehicle back into lane.

•    The Pre-Safe Brake System has been developed by Mercedes to detect pedestrians and brake autonomously to avoid collisions when travelling at speeds of over 50 km/h. This part of the Intelligence Drive System is a true step towards autonomous driving, as the computer system will brake regardless of action taken by the driver.

The Trend towards Connected, Autonomous CarsTaking research a step further are BMW and Continental, in a joint venture to work towards highly automated driving. The agreement runs through to the end of 2014 and will see several prototype vehicles undergo road testing with the aim of defining the long-term requirements for production of autonomousvehicles. The project partnership has an overriding aim to pave the way for highly autonomous driving functions beyond the year 2020. A roadmap has been laid out by the automotive giants for partial automation by 2016, highly automated driving by 2020, and fully autonomous driving by 2025.

The highly autonomous prototype currently being tested by BMW on German roads incorporates twelve sensors, and four laser scanners – one each for front, back and both sides. The vehicle also makes use of a mono camera facing through the windscreen and a highly accurate Differential GPS system. The on-board computer system receives data from its LIDAR, radar, digital cameras and ultrasound, which it analyses to build a picture of the car’s surroundings. This data is then matched to the GPS system which enables the computer to assess traffic up to 200 metres in front of the car, and all traffic around and behind the car. This technology enables the vehicle to accelerate, brake, steer and overtake autonomously.

Fully Autonomous Driving and Legislation

In May of this year the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a policy statement on autonomous driving, along with details of its plans for research on the related safety issues and recommendations for states on the testing, licensing and regulation of autonomous vehicles. The states of California, Nevada and Florida have already passed legislation allowing some car manufacturers, along with electronics giant Google, to test self-driving cars on public roads.

The policy addresses three key issues related to autonomous driving:

•   The Trend towards Connected, Autonomous CarsAn explanation of the many areas of vehicle innovation and types of automation that offer significant potential for enormous reductions in highway crashes and deaths.

•    A summary of the research NHTSA has planned or has begun to help ensure that all safety issues related to vehicle automation are explored and addressed.

•    Recommendations to states that have authorised operation of self-driving vehicles, for test purposes, on how best to ensure safe operation as these new concepts are being tested on highways.

The policy was clear that at the current time, the NHTSA does not recommend that states permit the operation of autonomous vehicles for purposes other than testing. It also outlines that in addition to the requirement for states to have special licences for testing and for the licensees to be in the driver’s seat at all times, that the operator should be able to take control of the vehicle at any time if needed, and should report any malfunction, crash or near miss to the relevant authorities.

The Future for Driverless Vehicles:

While some in the industry claim that fully autonomous vehicles could be in production in five years, others are more conservative and estimate that driverless cars will not be viable before 2025.

What is clear is that the technology is very nearly upon us, and the introduction of these vehicles will not be held back by development. As well as the legislative impact, there must also be consideration for the legal and insurance implications in the case of an accident.

Who will be to blame for a crash when none of the vehicle occupants are actually in control of the vehicles?


The Trend towards Connected, Autonomous CarsIn a wider sense, there is also the question of whether the general public are ready to accept and embrace driverless vehicles. This may simply depend on a generational change as digital native consumers are prepared to relinquish the ability to drive in favour of constant connection to social media and internet content. There is also a large proportion of the population which cannot drive or choose not to drive, which could be offered a viable alternative to public transport or paratransit systems.

The issue of safety is of paramount importance for the authorities and the public alike. If there is sufficient evidence to show that driverless vehicles are actually safer than manually driven vehicles, the technology will be much more easily accepted. Car-to-car communication opens up a variety of possibilities in terms of safety which simply could not be achieved with a stand-alone vehicle, and which will aid the development of the autonomous vehicle.

For example, if a vehicle experiences hazardous road conditions it will be able to relay this information to the cars following behind, so that those vehicles can adjust driving speed and on-board systems accordingly to avoid accidents.

Ultimately the introduction of autonomous vehicles is unlikely to represent a revolution in transportation due to the complexity of all the related factors. The development of driverless vehicles will be a gradual shift in technology, legality, and attitude.

About the Author:


Mr. Colin PawseyColin Pawsey is a freelance technical journalist, focussing on new trends and technologies in the automotive sector. He is a regular contributor and writing consultant to Automotive IQ, and is also the founder of copywriting agency Pure Copy.

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