Steering Toward Autonomy

Earlier this year 20 carmakers agreed to voluntarily install automatic emergency braking (AEB) systems on most U.S. models by 2022. Studies by the Dept. of Transportation and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimate the technology can reduce rear-end collisions by as much as 40 percent and lessen the severity of many more. 

But as good as AEB is—varying levels of the technology are being implemented—there still will be cases where a vehicle is going too fast to stop in time to avoid an obstacle. Wouldn’t it be great to have an automatic emergency steering system to further assist drivers when this happens? Of course it would, and several companies already are working to make it happen. 

As with AEB, automatic emergency steering can utilize camera, radar and laser sensors already used for other active safety systems such as adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detection and lane-keeping assist. Depending on vehicle speed and closing distance, AES can provide the additional split-second needed to avoid an accident that can’t be done via braking. 

Last month Ford announced it was developing an “evasive steering assist” system. If a collision is imminent and braking alone won’t avoid it, the system alerts the driver and provides additional steering input based on a driver’s actions to help maneuver around the obstacle. Ford says it is working to further automate the system, but notes that drivers still will be able to override the feature if needed. 

Suppliers also are getting in on the act. Continental’s emergency steer-assist technology senses if a driver aggressively swerves into another lane and automatically engages the car’s electronic stability control system to stabilize the vehicle and prevent it from fishtailing out of control. The supplier says it will launch the technology with an unnamed automaker next year in Europe. 

ZF is taking the technology a step further. Its system automatically steers around an obstacle if it determines a collision is imminent and can’t be avoided through braking. In addition to calculating the likelihood of an accident, the system has to verify the vehicle can safely switch lanes without interfering with other traffic. ZF is demonstrating the technology in an Opel Insignia equipped with the supplier’s forward-looking radar and electronic power steering systems.

Continental and ZF also are testing integrated systems that allow for Level 2 automated operation. Both suppliers use a mix of advanced cameras and short- and long-range radar systems to continuously monitor a vehicle’s surroundings and position within a lane. This enables automated control of the throttle, brakes and steering—including lane changes, which the driver triggers by flicking the appropriate turn signal. Visual and audible alerts will signal a driver when he or she needs to retake control of the vehicle. 

ZF says its system will suggest a lane change when the host car is closing on another vehicle and there is sufficient room in the adjacent lane. Drivers can either accept or reject the request. The system uses a lane-keeping camera with electric power steering to continuously center the vehicle in its lane. 

Both companies stress the importance of human-to-machine interfaces and keeping drivers engaged when a vehicle is in autonomous mode. Continental is working on an eye-monitoring system to detect drowsiness or if a driver needs to be reminded to refocus his or her attention on the road. Such interfaces are especially important as new driver-assist technologies are introduced, notes Jeff Klei, president of Continental’s North American Automotive operations. “People have indicated they want the technology if it improves safety. But they don’t understand it and aren’t comfortable with it yet,” Klei says. “We need to help build their confidence.” 

A recent AAA study on automatic emergency braking systems underscores his point. The auto club says two-thirds of the people it surveyed falsely assume all automatic braking systems work the same, which could lead to unrealistic expectations. 

“These technologies can significantly improve safety” adds Andy Whydell, director of product planning, global systems for ZF’s Active and Passive Safety unit. “But customers have to understand and know how to use them effectively.”