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April 28, 2016

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Self-driving cars: Can we override anxiety?

THE current Beijing Auto Show provides a fast-forward into a future of hands-free driving, even though the affordability and safety of autonomous driving remain lingering questions.

The Volvo C26 concept car has a transformer-like layout in the interior that adapts to different needs of space and tasking when switching between “drive,” “create” and “relax” modes. The Volkswagen Phideon concept features thermal-imaging technologies with sharp night vision beyond traditional camera-based “eyes.” And the Nissan IDS concept car even understands and imitates a driver's own style and preferences.

Domestic Chinese carmakers with home advantage are eager to show they no are underdogs at the cutting edge of autonomous driving.

Chang’an subjected its self-driving car to a 2,000-kilometer expedition from its headquarters in the southwestern city of Chongqing to Beijing for the auto show, making it the longest road test to date for automated driving in China.

BAIC organized test rides of its highly autonomous cars during the show, with the vehicles following a route around the exhibition site. Internet company LeEco had its LeSEE concept car drive onto the stage all by itself.

In the face of these far-flung concepts of “brain-off” driving, the reality of what’s on offer pales by comparison.

Volvo’s flagship sedan S90 was launched at the auto show as the world’s first mass-production car model equipped with highly automated features as standard specs. Yet, it is only semi-autonomous where actually driving is concerned. As the first-generation application of the brand’s flagship SUV XC90, it has come a long way in achieving lane mark-based auto cruise, steering, acceleration, braking at a speed of up to 130km/h from a limit of 50km/h for its first-generation application on the brand’s flagship SUV XC90.

While sparing no efforts to promote autonomous-driving as carefree and casualty-free, most industry players remain cautious about the way to reach the ultimate goal.

At the moment, fully autonomous cars are confined to test circuits or cities that have designated specific areas for testing. Ford aims to triple its self-driving cars for testing to 30 in the US this year, a number large enough to make it the biggest fleet of its kind in the world. But the company said it has no intention of rushing the cars to market just to be first.

Data collection is the foundation of a car’s ability to think and act by itself. That sort of technology, with a myriad of sensors to produce artificial perception, costs a fortune these days.

Valeo, a leading auto technology supplier in the field of autonomous driving, draws its advantage from enabling one-stop shopping for all the hardware needed by its clients. That includes cameras, radars and laser scanners. But nowadays “soft” skills are equally important.

Under partnerships with IT companies, Valeo is seeking to advance data-processing capabilities through building up algorithms and nerve networks for a machine’s steep learning curve. With hardware deployment, it wants to make the car less demanding and more cost-effective. A car’s ability to construct a world in its own binary system may also be enhanced through knowledge shared among its peers.

In addition, developers need to explore the use of big data to make cars well informed, said Enno Tang, vice president and managing director of Continental China, overseeing vehicle dynamics, chassis and safety.

The company is matching the high-precision map with its own road database, where every car functions as a source of real-time data and benefits from the assembled “big picture.” That’s how cars can become street smart without very sharp eyes and ears, and even develop some foresight. It is a big vision that no single company alone can accomplish.

China is working on its own regulatory and technological framework for autonomous driving. A draft is expected to be released as earlier as this year, making the technology available on open highways within 3-5 years and to urban travel by 2025, according to Li Keqiang, autonomous engineering professor at Tsinghua University, who leads drafting work on the plan.

China’s open-mindedness about self-driving cars is higher than even that of the US and Europe, but introduction here is complicated by often poor road conditions and the lack of driver etiquette. Those factors make it harder to devise pre-set programs that take unpredictability into account. Even adaptive cruise control, a common technology these days that sets the pace of driving at a safe distance from the car in front, is pretty useless if aggressive lane-cutters dominate the roads.

Edouard de Pirey, president of Valeo China, said highways featuring relatively straightforward pattern of driving are at the forefront of autonomous driving. In fact, highway pilots are already a market-ready solution. He also suggests dedicated lanes for autonomous cars.

To grasp how drivers and passengers feel about riding in self-driving cars is also a very important consideration in the auto industry. Bold and yet jerky users deserve some empathy.

Demonstrating that a car really has road situations under control helps users develop trust, said Continental. The company’s augmented reality head-unit display projects a computer-constructed digital world onto the real one before people’s eyes. And an intuitive switch between different driving modes is a core study of human-machine interface at Valeo.

Indeed, for most carmakers, a driverless car is still too radical a concept for today’s roads. In the foreseeable future, autonomous driving must allow drivers to take back the controls at any time.


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