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French self-driving car goes for a spin around Paris monument

Peter Sayer | March 30, 2015
For this self-driving car, the roadside hazards included traffic jams, undisciplined bystanders -- and centuries-old cannons.

For this self-driving car, the roadside hazards included traffic jams, undisciplined bystanders — and centuries-old cannons.

That's what you get when you demonstrate your latest technology at the National Army Museum in central Paris, as French companies Safran and Valeo did on Friday.

Safran, a defense contractor, and Valeo, an automotive parts manufacturer, kitted out a Volkswagen CC with radar, lidar and all-round cameras for their demonstration, and let it loose on a winding track around the museum grounds. They wanted to show how close the European automotive industry is to its goal of having self-driving cars for sale in 2020.

There were no wheel-spins or clouds of dust: This was a simulated urban environment with traffic lights, slow-moving or stopped vehicles ahead, and speed limits of 20 km/h or less. The car glided to a halt a few meters behind a stopped vehicle, moving on as soon as the way was clear; respected stop signals; and slowed gently at a variable sign indicating the speed limit had dropped to 10 km/h. When the curious crowd spilled into the road at the circuit's finish line, the car pulled up cautiously a few meters short of the line.

Vehicle manufacturers expect the first self-driving cars to be semi-autonomous, initially only taking control in stop-start urban traffic. That's more or less what Safran and Valeo demonstrated here. The demonstration used a Volkswagen, but it could equally have been a Peugeot or a Nissan. Employees of the two parts manufacturers said they're in talks with many manufacturers, but wouldn't name them.

In a separate exhibit, Valeo showed just how different the user interface of these semi-autonomous vehicles could look.

Today, for example, in-car navigation systems highlight traffic jams in red — but Valeo has chosen to color them green on its display.

"We've chosen a positive color for jams because in future we hope to turn them into time in which you can do what you like," said Valeo industrial designer Jean-Patrick Favier.

He went on to show how drivers will engage and disengage the "autopilot" using two touch-sensitive display panels on the steering wheel, and how this will affect controls for the in-car entertainment system. With the driver in control the interface is minimalist, showing just audio volume and the name of the radio station or track playing, much like on cars today. In self-driving mode, though, the interface becomes much richer, displaying album covers or movie trailers drawn from the driver's mobile phone.

While smartphone manufacturers are pushing Android Auto or, in Apple's case, CarPlay, as a way to simplify a phone's interface for in-car use, Favier says that's the wrong approach for autonomous vehicles.


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