Self-driving cars aren’t just coming, they’re already here. In fact, they’ve arguably been motoring around since the 1950s, when the first commercial driver assist technology was introduced.
Since then, our cars have been getting smarter, adding all manner of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) to improve driver safety. Little by little, cars are driving themselves.
From driver assist to automation
Some of these system are designed to provide us with vital information (like Tyre Pressure Monitoring Systems and Blind Spot monitoring), others automate tasks to allow us to concentrate on the road (such as Rain Sensors turning on windscreen wipers).
Ultimately, driver assist systems like the examples below are designed to automate acceleration, braking and steering. They are key steps on the road to the fully autonomous and driverless vehicles of the future, which will be able to do all three.
Although the idea of maintaining a set speed can be traced back to the early 1900s, a practical system of mechanical cruise control was invented in 1948 by engineer Ralph Teetor. The first car to feature his system (dubbed ‘Auto-pilot’) was a 1958 Chrysler Imperial like the one above.
Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) is the modern equivalent, able to control speed and braking to maintain a set distance to the vehicle travelling in front. The first radar-assisted ACC system to control braking first appeared in Mercedes S-Class and CL-Class cars back in 1999.
Automatic Parking systems
Did you know that cars have actually been able to drive themselves since 2003? Versions of the Toyota Prius that year included a feature called Intelligent Parking Assist, designed to automate reverse parallel parking. That said, this driver assist technology had some issues — it couldn’t often detect objects including cats and, more worryingly, pedestrians.
Thankfully, today’s automatic parking systems are much improved. Volkswagen’s Park Assist will steer itself while you control the pedals, while BMW’s Parking Assistant (shown in the video above) has a fully automatic, gesture-enabled, remote control option that can accelerate, brake and steer a car into an empty space.
Collision Avoidance systems
Precrash systems use camera, radar or Lidar technology to detect potential collisions and warn the driver, often independently activate braking and steering in an attempt to avoid an accident. Volvo’s IntelliSafe system, for example, can detect pedestrians, cyclists and warn of collisions, automatically applying the brakes if you are too slow to react.
Lane Keep/Lane Centering Assist systems
Toyota’s Lane Keeping Assist system combines Lane Departure Warning technology with automatic Lane Centering. Using an onboard camera, the technology monitors and corrects a car’s position within the white or yellow lines that mark out a typical road ‘lane’.
The Lane Departure Warning system not only sounds an alert when you accidentally deviate from a lane, but can apply a counter-steer to keep the car in position. Lane Centering assist, meanwhile, auto corrects the steering to keep the vehicle safely in the middle of the lane.
Know your levels of vehicular automation
There are six accepted levels of vehicular automation, from Level 0 (no automation) to Level 5 (full automation). Most Parking Assist, Cruise Control and Lane Keeping technologies are ‘hands on’ Level 1 systems. Tesla’s Autopilot is considered to be a Level 2 (partial automation)/Level 3 (conditional automation) system. In all cases, drivers remain a vital part of the process.
There’s still a long way to go until a Level 5 (full automation) car becomes a reality, one where the driver becomes an optional component. For this requires 5G networking, advanced sensors, huge processing power and advanced AI that can number crunch four terabytes of data every 90 minutes. It’s a challenge that has seen Intel establish its Silicon Valley Innovation Center for Autonomous Driving.
Intel, Mobileye and BMW are currently working on Level 4 (high automation) prototype cars that bring us another step closer to driverless vehicles. Fully autonomous Level 5 cars might be the end goal, but as BMW points out, Level 4 automation allows drivers to “choose whether to drive themselves or be driven autonomously.” Arguably, it’s a concept that’s much easier to sell.