Fast-Forward to the Future

As safety, environmental issues, congestion, and other factors increase in importance, sensors and intelligence are what will make the car viable.

Back in 2002, Bob Lutz, car czar at General Motors well before The Fall, proposed that the company would stop providing antilock brakes as standard on some vehicles, thereby reducing the price of the cars, and consequently freeing up some of that monthly payment perhaps to buy other options, like better audio systems. It wasn’t that Lutz was (or is) anti-safety—assuming that you believe that ABS are beneficial vis-à-vis safety—but it probably had some- thing to do with the fact that he was (and probably still is) a better driver than most, and he knows how to handle cars when something goes pear-shaped. This is not to suggest that Lutz (or anyone else) can pump the brakes as quickly as ABS or that Lutz (or anyone else) can detect wheel slip as early as ABS sensors, but to provide a probable explanation for his proposal.

ABS has become a central part of active safety systems in cars. The sensors that help activate it are used for various other chassis controls, as well (e.g., ESP systems are built on ABS, so while some may point out that there is no regulation  requiring ABS as ABS for light vehicles, there is a regula- tion for ESP, and no ABS, no ESP). And the growth of the number of sensors and controllers in vehicles, while not exactly exponential in number, are such that their abilities have made cars much more capable in providing safer driving, whether this is assuring that drivers stay in their lanes or that drivers back up without running over something that they may not have seen due to inattention or blind spots.

We’ve all come a long way in a little more than 10 years. Now the discussion is not about an individual system like ABS, but all the way to the point of a discussion of autonomous vehicles, of cars that can drive themselves with  little or no physical input by the driver beyond a download of wherever it is that one wants to go. Think about this for a minute. Go back to when things like ESP were being promoted by companies including Bosch and Continental in the face of those who were decrying the “nanny-like” nature of technological systems that were meant to improve the driving experience (which is a nice way of saying: helping drivers who get over their heads in some situations) and realize that we’ve fast-forwarded to a place where adaptive cruise control—using sensors and controllers to maintain speed and set distance from vehicles, providing the means,  in some cases, to brake to a full stop without the use of one’s  right foot—is considered to be a desirable option. Not that I think those who decried any intervention related to their driving are going to be opting for a car with adaptive cruise,  but it is interesting that knowledgeable, reasonable, capable, responsible people are talking about autonomous vehicles as though it is a matter of when not if, and essentially say that it isn’t really an issue of technology but of cost and litigation. Or maybe that should be litigation and cost.

The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute recently surveyed people in the U.S., Australia and the U.K. on the subject of connected vehicles, which is most certainly an important aspect that is going to get us to autonomous vehicles, even though it is primarily focused on the informational aspects of one’s commute. That is, the connected car is one that can communicate with other vehicles as well as with the infrastructure. As the authors of the survey, Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak, put it, “Connected-vehicle safety applications would enable vehicles to have 360-degree awareness to inform a vehicle operator of hazards and situa- tions they cannot see... Connected-vehicle mobility applications are intended to provide a connected, data-rich travel environment based on information transmitted anonymously from thousands of vehicles that are using the transportation system at a particular time . . . The ability for vehicles to “talk to” the infrastructure could provide information to the vehicle operator so that he/she can drive through a traffic signal net- work at optimum speeds to reduce stopping.” By leveraging information, the driver can do things that otherwise can’t be done. And what’s astonishing, especially in this era of NSA and the Heartbleed bug, is that some 86% of the respondents are interested in having connected vehicle technology.

Does this portend the end of personal transportation? Far from it. As safety, environmental issues, congestion, and other factors increase in importance, sensors and intelligence are what will make the car viable.