Safety systems set the stage for autonomous driving

  • 17-Apr-2013 04:14 EDT

Continental’s Christian Schumacher said autonomous systems will have to be nearly perfect to gain acceptance.

Technologies such as adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warning are doing more than improving safety today. They’re also setting the stage for autonomous vehicles, showing buyers that the technology works while building volumes that will eventually help make autonomous vehicles affordable.

However, speakers on the “Driver Distraction Regulation and Autonomous Driving” panel told SAE 2013 World Congress attendees that there are still many hurdles to be overcome before autonomous vehicles rule the roads. Technology and regulations are important, but figuring out how to combine human interactions and automated control are also critically important.

“In the past, HMI research focused on ease of use. Now we’re looking at the interaction between the human and the machine,” said Robert K. Yakushi, Director of Product Safety, Environmental at Nissan North America Inc. “The vehicle is taking on the role of the wing man, with the ability to transfer control from the driver to the wing man.”

Determining when that vehicular wing man will take over and when the driver should remain in charge will be a key challenge for those developing autonomous controls. At times, drivers may want to manage the vehicle during emergencies. Other times, they may be distracted so the vehicle must take action to avoid an accident.

“A key word is balance. You have to clearly set the roles and responsibilities between the driver and the vehicle,” said Kazuoki Matsugatani, Director of Division 3 Corporate R&D at Denso Corp. “A driver may fully rely on the systems and not pay attention to driving. You need to find balance between over-reliance and distraction.”

When these automated systems take control, they will have to be all but perfect. It’s accepted that people are responsible for a large percentage of traffic accidents. But the acceptance level for accidents caused by electronic systems won’t be very forgiving.

“The failure of an automated system will not be viewed the same as a human failure,” said Christian Schumacher, Head of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, NAFTA at Continental Automotive Systems. “If only one accident happens with an automated system, it will be seen far differently than the thousands of accidents caused by human errors.”

As engineers work on these matters, they’re also watching the actions of governmental agencies. Legal issues and regulations will play a major role in the implementation of autonomous systems. As with technology, regulators are taking small steps today that will set the stage for rules that will determine how aspects of autonomous driving are regulated.

“There aren’t any regulations yet for distracted driving, but NHTSA is planning some guidelines for distracted driving,” said Jay Joseph, Senior Manager of American Honda Motor’s Product Regulatory Office. “Guidelines are a new territory for all of us. If portions of the impending guideline are taken too far, it could mean the near-prohibition of some types of products.”

Legislators will also help determine how quickly technologies will move into production. One example is vehicle-to-vehicle communications, which many panelists said is an important part of autonomous driving. Standards are needed to ensure that all vehicles can communicate.

“We need regulations to help us get this technology into the field,” said Peter F. Sweatman, Director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. “Regulations are important so you know that a message sent by a Honda can be received by a Cadillac. A new system like this will need a lot of credibility.”

Vehicle-to-vehicle communications has a unique requirement—many vehicles must have the technologies so they can share data. One panelist suggested that numbers will grow more quickly if drivers use smartphones instead of relying on factory-installed communications gear.

“It will take time to build up the numbers,” said Christopher Borroni-Bird, Vice President, Strategic Development at Qualcomm Inc. “It could take 10 years if we rely on vehicle turnover. It will take far less if we rely on smartphones, which are changed every couple years.”

Panelists also said that differing views of personal freedom may have an impact on how the general public views autonomous driving. Honda’s Joseph noted that some vehicle owners may have the perception that they’re giving up some freedom. He noted that Web searches for NHTSA’s black box proposal found many connections to terms like big brother and nanny state.

However, Conti’s Schumacher said that with America’s aging population, some drivers may view autonomous systems as a technology that lets them enjoy the freedom that driving brings for a longer period.

At the close of the panel, speakers were asked to provide an estimate of the time frame that a fully autonomous vehicle will be marketed. Estimates ranged from 2020 to 2025.

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