Home' Technology Review : November December 2013 Contents 48
MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
racies in sensor readings, this software
decides whether to switch to another lane,
to attempt to pass the car ahead, or to get
out of the way of a vehicle approaching
from behind. Commands are relayed to
a separate computer that controls
acceleration, braking, and steer-
ing. Yet another computer system
monitors the behavior of every-
thing involved with autonomous
driving for signs of malfunction.
Impressive though BMW’s
autonomous highway driving is,
it is still years away from market.
To see the most advanced auton-
omy now available, a day later I
took the train from Munich to
Stuttgart to visit another German
automotive giant, Daimler, which
owns Mercedes-Benz. At the company’s
research and development facility south-
east of the city, where experimental new
models cruise around covered in black
material to hide new designs and features
from photographers, I got to ride in prob-
ably the most autonomous road car on the
market today: the 2014 Mercedes S-Class.
A jovial safety engineer drove me
around a test track, showing how the car
can lock onto a vehicle in front and fol-
low it along the road at a safe distance.
To follow at a constant distance, the car’s
computers take over not only braking and
accelerating, as with conventional adap-
tive cruise control, but steering too.
Using a stereo camera, radar, and an
infrared camera, the S-Class can also spot
objects on the road ahead and take con-
trol of the brakes to prevent an accident.
The engineer eagerly demonstrated this
by accelerating toward a dummy placed
in the center of the track. At about 80
kilometers per hour, he took his hands off
the wheel and removed his foot from the
accelerator. Just when impact seemed all
but inevitable, the car performed a near-
perfect emergency stop, wrenching us for-
ward in our seats but bringing itself to rest
about a foot in front of the dummy, which
bore an appropriately terrified expression.
With such technology already on the road
and prototypes like BMW’s in the works,
it’s tempting to imagine that total auto-
mation can’t be far away. In reality, mak-
ing the leap from the kind of autonomy in
the Mercedes-Benz S-Class to the kind in
BMW’s prototype will take time, and the
dream of total automation could prove
For one thing, many of the sensors
and computers found in BMW’s car, and
in other prototypes, are too expensive to
be deployed widely. And achieving even
more complete automation will probably
mean using more advanced, more expen-
sive sensors and computers. The spinning
laser instrument, or LIDAR, seen on the
roof of Google’s cars, for instance, provides
the best 3-D image of the surrounding
world, accurate down to two centimeters,
but sells for around $80,000. Such instru-
ments will also need to be miniaturized
and redesigned, adding more cost, since
few car designers would slap the existing
ones on top of a sleek new model.
Cost will be just one factor, though.
While several U.S. states have passed laws
permitting autonomous cars to be tested
on their roads, the National Highway Traf-
fic Safety Administration has yet to devise
regulations for testing and certifying the
safety and reliability of autonomous fea-
tures. Two major international treaties, the
Vienna Convention on Road Traffic and
the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic,
may need to be changed for the cars to be
used in Europe and the United States, as
both documents state that a driver must
be in full control of a vehicle at all times.
Most daunting, however, are the
remaining computer science and
artificial-intelligence challenges. Auto-
mated driving will at first be limited to
relatively simple situations, mainly high-
way driving, because the technology still
can’t respond to uncertainties posed by
oncoming traffic, rotaries, and pedestri-
ans. And drivers will also almost certainly
be expected to assume some sort of super-
visory role, requiring them to be ready to
retake control as soon as the system gets
outside its comfort zone.
The relationship between human and
robot driver could be surprisingly fraught.
The problem, as I discovered during my
BMW test drive, is that it’s all too easy
to lose focus, and difficult to get it back.
The difficulty of reëngaging distracted
The image above shows 3-D data captured by the
LIDAR instrument atop a Google self-driving car,
where color indicates height from the ground. Inset
is the view from the car’s front-facing camera.
10/9/13 2:37 PM
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