AGE OF THE AU­TONOMOUS CAR COMETH?

Leisure Wheels (South Africa) - - MAIL - Astrid de la Rey, Volvo South Africa

I read about the so-called Pi­lot As­sist fea­ture in the new Volvo XC40. Ac­cord­ing to my un­der­stand­ing, this will stop the ve­hi­cle in the event the driver is in­ca­pac­i­tated?

I was re­cently in New Zealand and was driven by my host in a Skoda look­ing very much like a VW Tiguan. Ac­cord­ing to him, the fea­ture of stop­ping the car if the driver is in­ca­pac­i­tated was also in his ve­hi­cle. Pos­si­bly he over­stated the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the fea­ture or I heard what I wanted to hear.

I have a daugh­ter who had her first epilep­tic fit at 26 and I am keen to en­sure she has the best tech­nol­ogy avail­able to her when she is once again cleared to drive by her doc­tor, in the event she should have a an­other fit (which she ob­vi­ously can­not de­tect com­ing).

I have writ­ten to Volvo, Mercedes (which re­cently ad­ver­tised a self-drive car go­ing around Chap­man’s Peak), Volk­swa­gen and BMW. Ex­cept for BMW, I have had replies from all of them. VW states it is ex­pect­ing to in­tro­duce this fea­ture some time next year while both Volvo and Mercedes stated in June that the ap­pro­pri­ate per­son will be in con­tact with me.

Pos­si­bly you are aware of this tech­nol­ogy? To whom must I di­rect a re­quest so that the var­i­ous ve­hi­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers en­sure this fea­ture is in­cluded in all ranges of ve­hi­cles, not just the ones which cost over R500 000?

Peter All­der­man, via email

Volvo South Africa re­sponds as fol­lows: Although there are fully au­tonomous Volvos be­ing tested in Swe­den, China and other big mar­kets, they are not yet avail­able as a pro­duc­tion car. That is be­cause fully au­tonomous ve­hi­cles have not yet been le­galised on our roads (glob­ally, au­tomak­ers are con­stantly cam­paign­ing to speed up the process).

From Volvo’s side, our ve­hi­cles are equipped with many stan­dard safety fea­tures that will in­ter­vene to stop/mit­i­gate ac­ci­dents if the driver fails to re­spond.

City safety, for ex­am­ple, is stan­dard on all our ve­hi­cles (even en­try-level), in­clud­ing the XC40. This sys­tem senses po­ten­tial col­li­sions, even when it is dark, and can ac­ti­vate the brakes au­to­mat­i­cally should the driver not re­act in time. City safety pro­vides three lev­els of in­ter­ven­tion; warn­ing, brake sup­port and full au­tonomous brak­ing, and uses a com­bi­na­tion of in­stru­ments and sen­sors to con­stantly mon­i­tor sur­round­ing con­di­tions.

Our cars also come stan­dard with lane keep­ing aid which helps the driver keep the car in its lane by gen­tly steer­ing the car back if it is about to cross a lane mark­ing, and if the car senses that the driver is not driv­ing ac­tively, or for ex­am­ple, not us­ing their in­di­ca­tors. If the sup­plied steer­ing in­ter­ven­tion is in­suf­fi­cient, the driver is alerted by vi­bra­tions in the steer­ing wheel. The sys­tem is ac­tive be­tween 65–200km/h.

Pi­lot as­sist is an op­tional fea­ture on our new cars. This is Volvo’s next gen­er­a­tion of semi-au­tonomous tech­nol­ogy. The adap­tive cruise con­trol fea­ture main­tains the de­sired set ve­hi­cle speed but utilises radar to mon­i­tor the ve­hi­cle in front and au­to­mat­i­cally slows down or speeds up as nec­es­sary.

In an evo­lu­tion of this, pi­lot as­sist takes care of the steer­ing (up to 130km/h and when lane mark­ings are clearly vis­i­ble) by con­tin­u­ally mon­i­tor­ing the area in front of the ve­hi­cle, mak­ing the nec­es­sary steer­ing, ac­cel­er­a­tor and brake in­puts as re­quired to keep to the de­sired speed, dis­tance and within the lane mark­ings. For pi­lot as­sist to stay ac­tive, the sys­tem needs to know the driver is awake and in con­trol (it senses if the driver’s hands are on the steer­ing wheel).

The ‘prob­lem’ with semi­au­tonomous sys­tems like those men­tioned above is that they are pre­cisely that: semi-au­tonomous and not fully au­tonomous. They will warn and as­sist the driver, but not take over com­pletely.

Let me put it this way: if you are faced with a hi­jack­ing sit­u­a­tion and need to ac­cel­er­ate and ram into the car in front of you to get away, city safety will not over­ride the driver and ap­ply full brakes. The sys­tem senses that you are ac­tively ac­cel­er­at­ing and steer­ing, so it will leave the driver in con­trol.

It’s only if the sys­tem re­ceives no ac­tive in­put from the driver that it takes over. The same with pi­lot as­sist: it will as­sist you to stay in your lane and keep a safe fol­low­ing dis­tance but it will not pull over and park the ve­hi­cle by it­self, as this falls un­der full-au­tonomous driv­ing and is not yet le­gal.

Th­ese sys­tems save many lives each year and they are specif­i­cally geared to driv­ers who are dis­tracted/tired. They are there to as­sist the driver, not take over if the driver be­comes in­ca­pac­i­tated.

To put this into per­spec­tive: sys­tems such as city safety will try to re­duce the sever­ity of an im­pact (or avoid it com­pletely by brak­ing au­to­mat­i­cally if there is no re­sponse from the driver), but it will not take full con­trol of the car by then driv­ing it­self to the side of the road and park­ing safely with the haz­ards on.

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