BABYING THE DRIVER
The latest “hands-free” co-driving technology may treat the experienced driver like a beginner, but it’s helpful – we try it out in Japan and Germany.
WI was an inexperienced 20-year-old learner driver back in 1993, my driving instructor seated beside me would, occasionally, use his right hand to adjust the steering angle and keep the car in the centre of the lane. And when I was instructed to merge into the next lane, he would keep a lookout for surrounding traffic and guide me accordingly while his hand hovered near the steering wheel rim.
Over two decades later, I’m behind the wheel of a car in Yokohama, Japan that can keep itself in the centre of the lane and even change lane automatically. No driving instructor needed.
It’s the Lexus LS500h, a 3.5-litre hybrid V6 luxury saloon, equipped with “Lexus Safety System + A”. The advanced active-safety package is designed for flagship models such as the latest LS limo.
Included in the package is Lexus CoDrive, which bundles Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (DRCC) with Lane Tracing Assist (LTA) and Lane Change Assist (LCA). Lexus’ DRCC and LTA are not the first features of their kind to be approved for road use in Japan. Nissan’s similar technology, ProPilot, has been offered as an option on the Serena MPV since August 2016 and on the X-Trail SUV since June last year. But the Lexus LCA is a new development which is, at this time, only road-legal in Japan.
I try it on a 12-kilometre route between the Pacifico Yokohama convention centre and the Daikoku Parking Area, via the metropolitan highway.
Activating the LCA is easy enough. It works in concert with the LTA function.
There’s a little lane-change icon displayed beside the fuel level indicator. The icon changes colour from white to green when the LCA is on standby for activation. Then, I push the indicator stalk up (to merge towards the left) or down (to merge towards the right) and hold it there for a few seconds.
If the LCA’s front and rear corner-radars determine that it’s safe for the Lexus to merge into the next lane, there’ll be a beep before the system performs the manoeuvre smoothly.
A specific in-dash graphic is shown at the same time, along with a text reminder, “Please look around, directly”.
I do exactly that, of course, since I don’t fully trust the system just yet.
After a few tries, I’m confident enough in the system to let the LCA execute the lane change without me touching the steering wheel.
An executive in the public affairs department of Toyota
THE DRIVER CAN RELAX BEHIND THE WHEEL OF THE AUDI A8 WHILE THE TRAFFIC JAM PILOT IS CO-DRIVING.
EVEN WITH THESE ADVANCED DRIVING AIDS, THE DRIVER IS ULTIMATELY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DRIVING.
Motor Asia Pacific tells me: “To prevent overconfidence, we do not refer to this technology as ‘automated driving’. The driver has the responsibility for driving.”
Okay, I agree that the driver is ultimately responsible for the driving, even with these advanced driving aids. Which is the reason why my hands would instinctively hover near the wheel of the LS500h, ready to take over. And the LTA system is ready to hand over control of the steering back to the driver whenever necessary, such as on a narrow exit ramp that curves sharply. Obvious warning beeps and various pop-up messages (“LTA Hold Steering Wheel”, “LTA Steering Assist Unavailable” and “LTA Driver Attention Required”) would prompt the driver to take the wheel.
I can do, and drive, without these gadgets. After all, if I need technological assistance to keep the car within its road lane and to change lane safely on the highway, I probably still need a driving instructor seated beside me.
What I really need is relief from the tedium of traffic jams. And Audi has just the system to provide said relief.
In Singapore, I try to beat the rush hour on the highway by leaving a little earlier. But here I am in Germany’s Essen-Mulheim Airport, waiting to leave a little later so that an Audi A8 could take me into rush hour on the highway nearby.
Because gridlock is necessary for Audi’s demonstration of AI traffic jam pilot, the first system of its kind (conditional automation of the driving task) to hit the road.
Currently, only the latest A8 limousine can be equipped with this newfangled feature, which is undergoing type approval in Germany (at time of writing) for rollout in 2018. The new A8 is said to be the first production car developed from the start for highly automated driving. The breakthrough technology includes two automotive world firsts: a laser scanner (mounted inside the front bumper) and a central control unit (about the size of a tablet computer) that manages all the software and hardware (such as ultrasonic sensors, radar devices and digital cameras) required for piloted driving.
Audi’s AI traffic jam pilot appears to be ahead of its time, and also ahead of today’s technical regulations and legal frameworks.
For instance, the United Nations Vienna Convention on road traffic states that “Every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle”.
But this rule doesn’t preclude the hands-free driving made possible by the new A8’s AI traffic jam pilot.
It only works on a dual carriageway with a physical dividing barrier in between, no traffic lights in sight, and in slowmoving traffic at up to 60km/h.
Any faster and it wouldn’t be a traffic jam anymore, according to Audi’s studies on road traffic congestion. When the conditions are met and the system is ready for activation, the digital instrument cluster shows pulsating white light strips on either side, the text “traffic jam pilot available” and a distinct white icon. The “Audi AI” button on the centre console is also illuminated in white to indicate the system’s availability.
After the system is activated, the in-dash display adopts a stylised graphic of the A8’s rear.
The driver can then take his hands off the steering wheel and let the A8’s traffic jam pilot handle the tedious task of tackling a traffic jam.
“The system is driving for the driver,” says Stefan Rietdorf, a member of the development team present at this tech event. Rietdorf then adds, “Hands off and mind off!”.
Well, not exactly. The system still requires the driver to gaze in the general direction of travel. So, playing a silly game on your smartphone is probably out of the question, although watching a movie on the car’s infotainment screen may be possible.
Indeed, the driver can relax behind the wheel while the traffic jam pilot is co-driving.
But if he is chilling out to the point of zoning out, or even falling asleep/unconscious, the system would prompt the driver to regain control of the car. The system determines when to do so by using a camera nestled at the 12 o’clock position of the instrument panel to monitor the position and movement of the driver’s head and eyes. It works even if the driver is wearing sunglasses There are two stages of prompting before the system intervenes by turning on the hazard lights, bringing the car to a complete stop within the lane and sending an SOS to emergency services. Such an eventuality would probably worsen the traffic congestion. But in normal circumstances, the Audi A8’s AI traffic jam pilot would make bumper-to-bumper traffic less of a drag for the driver.
The Audi A8 and Lexus LS (above) could co-drive for a change, but the driver/ chauffeur remains in charge of the limo on the move.