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How modern cars already drive better than you do

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal | April 18, 2013
Add sensors, lasers, and cameras, and the gap between today's heavily automated cars and tomorrow's self-driving cars is narrowing fast.

Automated vehicles aren't just a Google side project anymore. At the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, Toyota debuted its "advanced active safety research vehicle," which is basically a Lexus LS460 tricked out with cameras, sensors, and a whirling LIDAR laser. Audi also showed off some automated driving skills with a proof-of-concept sedan that was able to valet and park itself. And plenty of other automakers, including Ford, General Motors, and Volvo, are researching and testing out the technology.

You can see where this is going. When fully self-driving cars come online, the human will just be the one who signs the insurance contract. And if you think you're not ready to let go of the wheel, it's kind of too late: Cars started driving better than most people do about 40 years ago. People have gladly traded full driver control for greater ease and safety. So buckle up and learn how cars--whether heavily automated or someday, self-driving--can and will drive better than all of us.

It all started with antilock brakes

Although the fully automated self-driving cars we've seen so far look dauntingly high-tech (thanks mostly to that spinning LIDAR laser gizmo jutting up from the roof), the elements of self-driving technology already exist. Most of the cars on the road today incorporate at least a little automated technology, and have done so since the 1970's. Automakers overwhelmingly agree that the antilock braking system (ABS) was the beginning of "automated," or driver-assisted, technology.

ABS is a safety system that keeps cars' wheels from locking up and skidding when you slam on the brakes. The system uses automated cadence braking (pumping the brakes to maintain control of the car) and threshold braking (controlling brake-pedal pressure to maximize braking force). While both of these braking techniques can be performed by a skilled human driver, ABS is more effective because it can pump brakes much faster and with more control than a human can.

A modern ABS system monitors speed sensors on each wheel so it knows when a wheel is about to lock up, and it controls valves in each brake line. In other words, modern ABS is already somewhat capable of driving your car for you: Since it can control the brakes, it can also work with more-advanced algorithms (and with other pieces of technology) to keep you from tailgating, crashing into the car in front of you, or drifting out of your lane.

Combine modern ABS with electric power steering (which has been in cars since 1988) and cruise control (which dates back to 1945), and you basically have a car that can drive itself, if it knows where it's going. And that's where the fancy self-driving tech comes in.


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