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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.

Now that many newer cars have these sensors--especially radars and forward-facing cameras--built in, we're starting to see some moderate forms of automated driving. For example, Volvo currently has two semi-automated systems: adaptive cruise control and "lane keep aid." Volvo's adaptive cruise control uses radars to monitor the speed of cars in front of you, and then automatically adjusts your speed to maintain a set distance between you and those cars. Lane keep aid uses forward-facing cameras to "see" lane lines, and uses power steering and ABS to nudge you back into your lane if you start to drift.

In its 2014 fleet, Volvo will combine these two systems into a more advanced system called traffic jam assistance. Traffic jam assistance will essentially enable Volvo cars to steer and drive themselves in heavy traffic situations. It will use the radars and cameras to detect car speed and lane lines, and then ABS, cruise control, and power steering to keep the car both in its lane and at a safe distance from cars in front of it.

But what's key here is that all the different systems need to work together in order for any semi- or fully automated driving to be possible. Being the safety-oriented brand that it is, Volvo is particularly focused on this aspect. According to Jonas Ekmark, an innovation manager in Volvo's safety electronics and functions section, the company tries to ensure that there are at least two channels of sensors working alongside each other. That way, if one channel fails (for example, the cameras can't see the lane lines due to bad weather), the car can quickly put the driver back in control. "The challenge is making it very clear when the human is in control, and when the car is in control," says Ekmark.

Future self-driving vehicles will talk to each other

In the future of automated vehicles, self-driving cars are only one part of the equation. The other part includes everything around the self-driving car--namely, other cars, streets, street signs, stoplights, and infrastructure in general.

That's right: the future of self-driving cars may have just as much to do with vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication as it has to do with LIDAR lasers and high-definition cameras. Vehicle-to-X (or Car-to-X) communication, as it's called, involves cars "talking" to other cars, roads, traffic signs, and infrastructure such as buildings and bridges over a special, protected car network.

This type of communication is important, because it gives the car extra knowledge about its surroundings. For example, with vehicle-to-X communication, a blind corner might be able to signal to a car when another vehicle is approaching. Or a broken-down car might be able to signal to other cars that it's having issues.

 

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