AGE OF THE AUTONOMOUS CAR COMETH?
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.