Robotic Cars: The Future of Automotive Technology

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In 2003, Sebastian Thrun was just a Stanford professor with a really cool idea. Having already built several prototype cars that feature autonomous driving, including one for a Smithsonian exhibit, the car enthusiast decided to go full bore with a new project that would eventually become Stanley, a robotic car built around a VW Touareg that won the DARPA Challenge in 2005 and has sensors that monitor traffic, control steering, and can self-park. (In 2007, Thrun returned with another VW model that took second place in the DARPA Challenge.)

With this success, you might wonder: what can possibly top a car that drives itself? Since 2007, Thrun has taken a sabbatical to help Google develop the Street View feature in Google Maps, which display photographic overlays to help travelers find hotspots. This year, Stanford is working on a new project involving a modified Audi TT-S that provides autonomous vehicle operation as well. But in many ways, despite the recent excitement surrounding new in-car technology by Ford and others, the days of DARPA are rapidly fading, and it almost seems like the idea of the fully robotic auto has lost momentum. Or has it?

In many ways, the dream of autonomous cars did not die at the last DARPA event. Instead, it was born anew. Several leading car companies have invested in robotic automation features and are now well on their way to providing an experience not unlike Thrun’s vision for autonomous control, where a driver simply presses a button and sits back in his seat while the car drives him home. To understand the current state of robotic features, we test drove four of today’s most advanced vehicles to find out how these options work, and how close we are to full robotic control.

Ford-Taurus-SHO-1Ford Taurus SHO

The Ford Taurus SHO is an exceptionally advanced vehicle. In the TV show “White Collar” on USA Network, it gets top billing as a highly advanced vehicle, not a mid-range sedan meant for the middle-class commute.

One of the most surprising features on the Taurus SHO is that the vehicle manages the headlights for you. In a test drive under a variety of conditions (thanks to Vision Ford), the SHO would automatically dim the headlights when a car approached from about 200 feet away. In about a second after passing, the SHO would return the headlights to full brightness. The SHO also has rain-sensing wipers (which use sensors that can tell whether light is dispersing normally or is obscured by rain or snow) and a new Ford technology called BLIS, which can sense whether a car is nearby when you change lanes. (BLIS works by sending out a signal and measuring how quickly the return signal travels back from passing cars.)

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Adaptive cruise control – which also uses a sensor to look for obstructions in front of the vehicle – is an optional feature on the SHO. Another cool robotic feature: The seats on the SHO actually move and contour to keep you from sitting in the same position while you drive, helping to reduce back fatigue.

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Acura-MDX-1Acura MDX

This SUV crossover – the luxury brand from Honda – is a surprisingly advanced vehicle. During a week-long test drive, we found the MDX to reveal its robotic tendencies slowly over time. Chief among the advancements is the adaptive cruise, which can be set in intervals so that the MDX adjusts speed for the car in front of you based on three levels of proximity. In a test drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, the adaptive cruise would make occasional fine adjustments to driving speed, and in some cases would apply brakes ever-so-slightly to accommodate for traffic.

(Thanks to Acura for providing the test drive vehicle.)

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The MDX is not quite as advanced as the Mercedes E-350 we also test drove, in that the Mercedes would make finer adjustments to the engine. However, the MDX did a better job of making more obvious adjustments in heavier traffic. Unlike the Mercedes, which lulls you a bit by revving down the engine, when you approach another car, the MDX taps the brake to make sure you know the car is slowing down.

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The MDX has a front-mounted grille-cam that scans for the car ahead based on three intervals. This camera works similar to a Doppler radar in that it scans for shiny objects and instructions and measures the distance in front of the car.

Infiniti-EX35-1Infiniti EX35

The Infiniti EX35 is a sports-sedan that drives exceptionally well. But it is advanced technology that sets it apart. The car has sensors all around it, and cameras in the in the rear-view mirrors and behind the vehicle that scan for obstructions. In some ways, the EX is more advanced than the Mercedes E-350 in that it shows how robotic automation could work: by scanning all around the vehicle. In tests, the EX would beep slightly when we approached to closely to a passing or stationary vehicle. The rear-mounted camera is also higher-resolution and more accurate than the Taurus Sho for backing up in a tight parking spot.

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The EX also has exceptional lane-assist features – no wonder, since Infiniti was one of the first to invent this idea. In many conditions – including night driving, heavy traffic, partially obscured roads, and on city streets – the EX sensed the side of the road by scanning for white marker lines using front-mounted sensors. (Truth be told: we were pulled over by Las Vegas police while testing this feature and had a good laugh about it with the officer, who thought we were drunk-driving.)

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Lane-assist uses a camera that scans for stark contrasts in the road and flashes an icon when you depart a lane. However, the car is smart enough to know the difference between a lane change and an inadvertent nudge – the EX waits a half-second before flashing the icon to sense a real lane departure.

Mercedes-E-350-1Mercedes E-350

No other car quite compares with the E-350 for robotic features. As we mentioned, the adaptive cruise control worked exceptionally well in a test drive by slowing the car slightly on a highway. This adjustment was so subtle we barely even noticed we had gone for 75 down to 65 in the space of about 30 seconds. As the car in front moved to another lane, the E-350 slowly went back up to the correct speed.

Although we were not able to test it in a hands-on situation (because we only had a few hours for the test), the E-350 also provides a driver attention system that uses 70 different factors from the car to ensure you are able to drive. These factors include driving speed, how long you have been driving and erratic behavior. If the E-350 senses you need a rest from driving, it will alert you to the need for more attention.

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This year, Mercedes will release a new GL model that will provide a new lane-keeping system that nudges you back onto the road automatically when you depart a lane. On the E-350, we noticed the lane-assist features were more accurate than other test cars in that it even alerted us on a highway with a berm that covered up the white lines, likely do to how the E-350 scans the side of the road. (Thanks to Valley Imports for the E-350 test drive, www.valleyimports.net)

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What comes next?

These hands-on tests prove one thing: robotic automation in cars is advancing quickly. Even in less impressive robotic features, such as rain-sensing wipers, car makers are improving how the technology work from a simple panel that senses an obstruction to a camera that actually measures light diffraction. Lane-keeping on the Mercedes GL, grill-mounted cameras, sensors that send a signal out from the vehicle to look for passing cars… All of these technologies point to a near future when the car you drive can get you from point A to point B without your assistance.

Mercedes 2010 GL Class
Mercedes 2010 GL Class

Of course, some of the steps involved will take time: in the US, this means upgrading the infrastructure so that cars can communicate not only with traffic signals and adjust to highway speeds but communicate with nearby cars. Thrun’s vision for autonomous control is on the horizon, though – and closer ahead at the rate we’re currently cruising than you might think.