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Car Drives U

The latest in auto technology including self driving cars



Photo by Julia Tim

On October 21, 2015, my adventurous friend Alex Roy and two co-drivers arrived in Manhattan after a record-setting drive across the US in a Tesla Model S P85d. The journey, at just under 58 hours, was considerably slower than Alex’s 2006 transcontinental speed record of 31-plus hours. 

October’s accomplishment was significant on two fronts: it was a speed record for an electric vehicle (EV) crossing the US and even more impressive, 96 percent of the drive was done autonomously—without driver input. Utilizing Tesla’s new Autopilot self-driving technology, this trip illustrated how close we are to seeing autonomous or self-driving vehicles on US roads—indeed on Wilton roads.

The Tesla system is considered semi-autonomous, since it requires a driver sitting behind the wheel. While individual high-tech features such as adaptive cruise control can be had on many vehicles, the majority of the integrated technology is available only in expensive option packages and primarily on upscale luxury vehicles. 

Like ABS, which was initially limited but then became standard equipment on all passenger cars, additional high-end safety tech is coming. Ten manufacturers (Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Mercedes- Benz, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo) recently committed to making Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) standard equipment on all of their cars. AEB along with lane keeping and distance control are keys to semi-autonomous driving. 

These technologies work great on well-marked multi-lane highways but up here in the suburbs it’s a different story. The current systems rely on a combination of cameras, radar/lidar, sensors and GPS to keep a vehicle within a lane and to avoid obstacles. Our country roads often lack proper lines so the system can’t keep a center point in the lane, relying instead on tracking a car in front. Future systems will use road edge detection, but that tech is not yet fully developed. Another coming big step is vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology, which allows cars to communicate their position and actions to surrounding vehicles. V2V goes beyond sensors and cameras to alert drivers to potential collisions and works even in extreme weather conditions.

In addition to Tesla’s P85d, I recently spent some time with some other vehicles at the forefront of semi-autonomous tech to see how these systems work in the real world.

BMW’s all-new 7 Series is the most comfortable and technologically advanced big BMW ever with a dizzying list of available driving aids. On a round trip to Boston, I put the 750i’s Traffic Jam Assistant to good use. The system allows you to “float along” with heavy traffic, slowing and speeding up, all the while keeping a safe distance from the car in front, even bringing the car to a complete stop. As long as the driver keeps one hand (or a few fingers) on the wheel, the 7 can do the steering, accurately keeping the car in the center of the lane. In low-light conditions, BMW’s Night Vision can detect people and large animals through their heat signature and shape. I experienced its effectiveness when a neighbor leaned into the roadway to open his mailbox just after nightfall. Even though he was more than 50 feet ahead of the car, the system saw him and gave me visual and audible alerts. 

There is no question these new technologies will save lives. Better yet, fully-autonomous vehicles will give new freedom to those who are unable to drive themselves, like my elderly mother. But as someone who loves to drive and takes driving seriously, I have some reservations. In addition to the obvious practical challenges of how to incorporate self-driving cars into an existing unpredictable traffic flow and decaying roads, I worry about the new drivers who won’t develop important driving skills. If the car is doing everything, how do you learn basic car control? What happens when the system fails or the car can’t decide between avoiding a deer and swerving into an oncoming car? What if a snow squall renders the lane departure useless and you actually have to steer and adjust to the slippery road conditions?

Additionally, there is the real downside that all of these driver aids will just encourage more distracted driving. If you think the car will save your bacon, why not send that text, or eat that chimichanga, or fiddle with your playlist. Do we really want drivers paying less attention than they already do? 

Urban areas will be the testing grounds for this latest evolution of the car, where heavy traffic, short driving distances, and consistent infrastructure enable the tech to shine. But to me, up here on the tree-lined roads of New England, my favorite feature of these current
systems is the off button.

To see a video demonstration go to townvibe.com/techcar.


Tech-Loaded BMW 7
The cool Display Key shows remaining fuel, range, service notifications, window positions, and central locking. It can also be used to remotely park the car. BMW’s Gesture Control allows for selected functions to be operated by hand movements such as swiping and pointing. Simple circular movements to adjust volume are like virtual knobs.

 

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