On the road with a chauffeur

The latest assistance systems use data from a wide range of different sensors and connect to the Internet. These trends will enable fully autonomous driving in future.

The video was a big hit on the internet: a pram follows a young father step by step, completely autonomously, as he goes jogging, walks through the park, goes to a cafe; and even when subjected to a “crash test” in the living room, the pram brakes autonomously before hitting the wall. Too good to be true. Sadly, it was indeed merely a promotional clip from Volkswagen, demonstrating the technologies and innovations that are already available today. The systems needed are still too big to be practical – and certainly too expensive for use on prams. But for cars and trucks, the situation is quite different. They are increasingly being fitted with assistance systems.

Improved detection thanks to sensor fusion

The trend is towards so-called sensor fusion: linking information from different sensor systems, such as a radar sensor in the vehicle’s front end and a camera in the windscreen. Sensor fusion enables the system to interpret complex traffic scenarios more reliably. Vehicles ahead and stationary obstacles can be detected faster, and with greater safety. This gains the system time to initiate emergency braking earlier if necessary. As a result, the vehicle is able to decelerate more rapidly in an emergency and so come to a stop valuable metres earlier. Assistance systems that receive information from outside the vehicle respond even quicker. Thanks to the increasing online connectivity of cars and trucks, they are able to access digital maps, data from traffic light installations, as well as sensor data from other vehicles, for example. If an automated vehicle is notified over the Internet that it is approaching the end of a queue after a bend ahead, for example, the vehicle could gently reduce its speed rather than having to brake hard once the sensors detect the obstacle.

Seeing what the technology is doing

In future, the vehicle will also show the driver what the assistance systems see, and what they do. Augmented reality is the keyword. Continental has developed a head-up display that augments the reality of the traffic situation as seen by the driver with graphical information. Information from the assistance systems is displayed directly in the driver’s field of view. The ECU needed for that has to evaluate multiple sensor data streams in order to position the graphics exactly in the driver’s eyeline. Camera and radar data from the on-board sensors, the vehicle’s driving dynamics data, as well as digital map data and GPS location are used to create a model of the real outside view from the driver’s perspective. “This marks the start of a new era of interaction between the vehicle and the driver. The vehicle shows the driver what the assistance systems see, and what they are doing. That will create trust, and so also encourage acceptance of current and future driving functions,” states Eelco Spoelder, head of Continental’s Instrumentation & Driver HMI division.

Moving towards autonomous driving

Thanks to assistance systems, vehicles will offer automation in more and more driving situations in future, such as in the event of congestion, or at roadworks. The driver will be able to leave the driving to the vehicle according to the traffic situation. For long-distance trucking, especially, the combination of assistance systems will open up the possibility of autonomous driving in the years ahead. Daimler Trucks is already well on with the development of such systems for production use. “What motivates us is the vision of accident-free driving. That is why we are continually developing and bringing to market new safety systems. How quickly we are able to deploy them will also depend largely on how soon the necessary legal framework is established. That is a challenge to policy-makers,” comments Dr Wolfgang Bernhard, Daimler Management Board Director responsible for Trucks and Buses.
The new assistance and safety systems will each reduce the number of accidents in their own way. The quantum leap to accident-free driving will come when they are combined intelligently. “If we can combine all the longitudinal and transverse dynamics sensor systems on a truck, we will significantly enhance the safety of our vehicles – because then autonomous driving will be possible,” Dr Bernhard concludes. In July 2014, the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 fitted out with the intelligent Highway Pilot system undertook its maiden autonomous driving voyage on a stretch of motorway near Magdeburg. In May 2015, the US state of Nevada issued Daimler with the world’s first road-driving permit for its Freightliner Inspiration Truck, likewise featuring the Highway Pilot.
And for parents who are still having to push their children around in prams today, there is hope: assistance systems are getting ever cheaper and smaller. Toyota is now offering them even for small cars, in its Aygo model. That’s one step closer to the self-driving pram.

(picture credits: Shutterstock)

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