Auto Academy: Top 5 Autonomous Safety Systems

Source: Tesla
Source: Tesla

Autonomous vehicles are going to change the way we travel and think about cars, period. And while there are folks out there concerned with the ability of autonomous vehicles to operate safely within our existing systems, many of the foundation technologies that will control autonomous vehicles are already in use. Eventually, they’ll help to safely operate autonomous vehicles so they can take the place of human-driven cars on the roads. Today, they’re just beginning to provide additional safety, comfort, and connection for drivers. In this post, we explore five of these technologies that are helping millions of drivers everyday, even if they don’t notice them.

1. Dynamic cruise control

Toyota Millimeter-Wave Radar
Source: Toyota

First introduced in a rudimentary form by Mitsubishi in 1992 as Distance Warning, this technology exists in a variety of iterations and under a host of different names. Called everything from Dynamic Radar Cruise Control to Distronic Plus, these systems use either radar (radio waves) or lasers (amplified light) to determine the distance to the car in front of you, and keep a preset distance between the front of your car and the rear of the car ahead of you. This can usually be changed by the driver and can go down to alarmingly small distances (<10 feet for some systems). As you approach the car in front, the system will automatically make adjustments to maintain the set distance. These changes might include: decreasing throttle position, downshifting to utilize engine braking, or automatically applying the brakes. When the path in front of you becomes clear, the system will return to normal speed. This awareness of obstacles in your path gave birth to our next technology: collision avoidance systems.

2. Collision avoidance systems

Subaru EyeSight
Source: Subaru

These systems rely on the same sensors used for dynamic cruise control systems, and are designed to help drivers stop before a collision. If they detect an impending obstacle, they can take a number of actions to keep the occupants of the vehicle safe. Earlier systems simply warned the driver of an impending collision via an alarm or indicator light. Today, they can pretension seat belts, apply brakes, close windows, and even change seating positions to help minimize the risk of injury. While collision avoidance systems have come a long way over the last 20 years or so, they’re still susceptible to user error. Current systems are still impaired by road visibility, but there are a number of automakers working to minimize this. Subaru unveiled a technology called Eyesight that uses stereoscopic cameras to determine if the road ahead is clear. The system has performed extremely well in industry testing, and we have no doubt that we’ll see a combination of these systems in the near future.

3. Lane tracking

Mercedes-Benz Active Lane Keeping Assist
Source: Mercedes-Benz

One of the more self-explanatory systems, lane departure warning systems will warn you if you start to depart from the lane. They can utilize cameras, lasers, or infrared sensors to determine the relative position of the vehicle within the lanes. The system will take action to keep the car within the lane if it does not detect a corrective input from the driver. The inherent issue with these systems is their reliance on visible lane markings. If the markings are faded, nonexistent, or obscured by poor road conditions, these systems become inoperable. It’s likely that we’ll see GPS-based systems doing this task in the future, but those are probably still a few years off.

4. Driving condition detection systems

Land Rover Range Rover Sport
Source: Land Rover

Cars from the Mazda CX-3 to the Range Rover line (including the Range Rover Sport shown above) all offer technologies to determine driving surfaces and make changes to help improve traction. While these are often designed to improve performance, they also have the benefit of improving safety. After all, improved performance is a result of increased control. Increasing control often means that your odds of remaining safe will be improved as well. These systems utilize a variety of sensors (wheel-speed, suspension, throttle position, etc.) to guess at the surface and make changes accordingly. The Land Rover technology, specifically Terrain Response 2, has shown to be quite capable in both on- and off-road settings.

5. Smartphone integration

Source: Apple

This one has become so ubiquitous that it almost isn’t worth mentioning, but smartphones continue to shape the way we interact with our cars and the world around us. As described in our post on road trips, it’s extremely easy for smartphones to provide entertainment, guidance, safety, and connection all at once. With wireless connectivity, our cars now have the potential to develop and improve long after they’ve left the factory.

In this new Internet of Things, cars are becoming intelligent and connected. This can improve performance, reliability, safety, and sanity for those of us that rely on these mechanical marvels. Both Apple and Android are making plays for the connected car segment (with CarPlay and Auto, respectively) and manufacturers are starting to pick sides. Unlike the battle between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, both sides have a lot of resources, and this is likely to be a protracted fight. 

Easier driving, safer roads, and cars that help us to be better drivers? Until the opportunity to drive has been relegated completely to computers, it’s clear that we are experiencing the golden age of car tech.

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