Au­to­nomics: A study of some cool robo­car tech­nolo­gies

Motor Trend - - We Say... - Frank Markus TECH­NO­LOGUE

It’s been nearly a quar­ter cen­tury since I first rode in a car with my feet off the ped­als and my hands in my lap, watch­ing it ne­go­ti­ate turns while re­main­ing cen­tered in its lane and main­tain­ing a safe fol­low­ing dis­tance from a car in front. It even man­aged the auto stop-and-go trick.

The test car was a Nis­san Cima/cedric/glo­ria sedan, and it was chauf­feur­ing me around a prov­ing ground in Ja­pan. Back then the prospect of semi-au­ton­omy was new and ex­cit­ing. These days I feel like I’ve seen and heard ev­ery­thing there is to know about the var­i­ous stages of au­ton­o­mous trans­port. But re­cent sup­plier tech-day events in­tro­duced tan­gen­tial as­pects of the topic that awak­ened my long-dor­mant in­ter­est enough to war­rant shar­ing them here.

Com­fort ma­neu­ver­ing

ZF has built a “Vi­sion Zero” elec­tric con­cept car equipped with its elec­tri­fied MSTARS mod­u­lar semi-trail­ing-arm rear sus­pen­sion, which can steer the rear wheels by up to 8 de­grees. You know how some sur­round-sound sys­tems can op­ti­mize the lis­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for the driver, the front seats, or all pas­sen­gers? Well, this con­cept can op­ti­mize for mo­tion com­fort the same way. A slider re­pro­grams the amount of front and rear steer­ing that oc­curs for any given ma­neu­ver, ef­fec­tively repo­si­tion­ing the pivot point around which the car ro­tates fore and aft. I was rid­ing in back, and when that point aligned with my body, the turns felt much more serene.

The con­cept also gave me my first taste of a zero-yaw lane-change ma­neu­ver, where the front and rear axles steer in per­fect uni­son while pass­ing. This would feel weird if you were turn­ing the steer­ing wheel, but a car­load of heads star­ing at phones might not no­tice it at all. As au­ton­omy gets more rid­ers star­ing at de­vices in­stead of out the win­dows, mo­tion sick­ness will be a prob­lem and fixes like these will be in­valu­able.

Bag in roof

Although au­ton­omy prom­ises to dras­ti­cally re­duce the global ac­ci­dent rate, dur­ing the tran­si­tion pe­riod when hu­man and ro­bot driv­ers share the roads, we’re still go­ing to need crum­ple zones and airbags. But steer­ing wheels that dis­ap­pear into the dash make lousy airbag mounts, and airbags that blast di­rectly at us risk smash­ing our glass-screen de­vices into our faces. ZF’S so­lu­tion: De­ploy airbags from the ceil­ing so they knock de­vices into our laps while cush­ion­ing us. One such airbag is al­ready in use in the front pas­sen­ger seat of Citroën’s quirky C4 Cac­tus.

Con­ti­adapt wheel/tire

Au­tonomo­biles per­ceive their en­vi­ron­ment more thor­oughly than hu­mans can, and Con­ti­nen­tal’s Con­ti­adapt tire/wheel con­cept al­lows ve­hi­cles to use this added info to pro­gram their own footwear.

By vary­ing both wheel width and tire pres­sure on the fly, this con­cept tai­lors the con­tact patch size and shape to suit con­di­tions in real time. High pres­sure and mod­er­ate wheel width cre­ates a lon­gi­tu­di­nally short, broad patch for low rolling re­sis­tance. A nar­row width and high pres­sure makes for a longer, nar­rower patch that re­duces the like­li­hood of hy­droplan­ing in the rain. A wider rim and lower pres­sure help max­i­mize com­fort or—with pres­sures as low as 14 psi—boost trac­tion when launch­ing in deep snow and im­prove grip on ice.

Add in the Con­tisense suite of tire-mon­i­tor­ing sen­sors, and robo­cars will know ex­actly when and where they’ve suf­fered a punc­ture (re­ly­ing on an elec­tri­cally con­duc­tive mem­brane in the rub­ber) and when tire wear pat­terns sug­gest an align­ment or tire re­place­ment is due (us­ing tread-depth mon­i­tors across the tread width).

My chronic au­ton­omy fa­tigue per­sists, and I’m cer­tainly in no great rush for cars to put driv­ers out of busi­ness, but I rest a lit­tle eas­ier know­ing that en­gi­neers toil­ing on tech­nolo­gies like these will even­tu­ally cre­ate a driv­ing fu­ture we can all live with. n

Ceil­ing-mounted airbags are one po­ten­tial so­lu­tion when steer­ing wheels—and the airbags within— dis­ap­pear from au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles.

Ex­actly how Con­ti­nen­tal’s “hub-mounted com­pres­sor” works and how the rim varies its width with­out com­pro­mis­ing the seal has yet to be ex­plained.

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