June 2016

Vehicle Technologies Driving Toward the Autonomous Vehicle

By Scott Lennox

The following information evolved from a discussion with Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice president with the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI). During our conversation, Mr. Hazelbaker shared information on current vehicle technologies that automobile manufacturers have developed or that are being developed.

I’ve always enjoyed movies or television shows about the future, particularly how technology will be used in our everyday lives. The thought of getting into a vehicle and simply saying “take me to work” used to be a dream, but automobile manufacturers are moving us closer to that reality. I’m one of those individuals who really enjoys driving. For me, driving is not about getting from point A to point B. Thus I struggle with reconciling my sheer joy in driving my car with my fascination of the technological improvements toward the autonomous vehicle, where the only input I need to give is a destination. So, with a nod to my technological fascination, let’s look at some of the developments that automobile manufacturers have in store for us.

The current technologies can best be described as driver-assistance technologies. These technologies take the form of either passive assistance where the driver might get a reminder, to active assistance where the vehicle does something to take over the driving in some way. We are now still very much at the early stages with these technologies, and the public will need to be comfortable with them and they will need to work flawlessly before we can get to a place where the autonomous vehicles are going to exist in the mainstream.

The first technology is automatic emergency braking, where the system can alert the driver to an imminent crash and even apply the brakes independently of the driver if the situation becomes critical. There are two developments in this technology that vehicle manufacturers are working on. The first development is the ability to not only recognize another vehicle, but also to detect pedestrians. This technology is already in some vehicles. Volvo has announced that they will tweak their pedestrian detection for animal detection, the second development. There is the expectation for a significant reduction in losses if vehicles can avoid some collisions and slow down enough to reduce the severity of unavoidable collisions.

Adaptive headlights is a technology where headlights direct their beam in the direction of a curve to provide better visibility at night when driving on winding roads. Some systems can be very sophisticated. For example, the Audi system turns individual pixels on and off to try not to blind a vehicle coming from the opposite direction. Adaptive headlights, along with automatic emergency braking are the two technologies that are the most productive in terms of loss prevention, according to Hazelbaker. Interestingly enough, the cost of this technology is generally not significant. Some manufacturers even price their adaptive headlights option at the same level as the non-adaptive headlights option. Adaptive headlights technology is getting a lot more attention in Europe because their regulations allow more flexibility in this area. Regulations here in North America would need to be changed to allow such sophisticated systems.

The lane-departure warning system is designed to warn a driver when the vehicle begins to move out of its lane on freeways and arterial roads, except when a turn signal is on, indicating that a lane change is intended. These systems are designed to reduce accidents but, according to Hazelbaker, the results have been disappointing as the data is not showing the intended result. From the testing that the HLDI has done, they are observing that approximately two-thirds of vehicles tested have had this option turned off by the vehicle operator, suggesting that drivers are not finding this option helpful, or perhaps that the reminder is an annoyance. Manufacturers are now transforming the lane-departure warning systems into lane-keeping systems, where the vehicle automatically takes steps to keep the vehicle in its lane. There has not been enough data collected yet on the lane-keeping systems to see if this is an improvement over the lane-departure warning.

The one technology that manufacturers are now working hard to develop is some type of driver alert system. The system looks at the driver’s eyes from cameras inside the vehicle, and if it doesn’t notice shifting eye patterns that the system deems to be normal, the system will do something. That something might be to start to take control, sound an alarm, vibrate the seat, etc. The Volvo system lights up the outline of a cup of coffee in the dashboard if it thinks you’re drowsy. Presumably the coffee is caffeinated, or perhaps it should vary the size of the graphic depending on how drowsy it thinks the driver is. I’m sure we’re not far off from linking the system to the vehicle’s navigation so it can point you to the nearest coffee shop or nearest rest stop as a gentle suggestion. What is clear is that vehicle manufacturers are all working on something in this area, whether it be to detect when the driver is drowsy or when the driver’s attention is looking down at their cell phone instead of looking where they’re driving. The system will respond in some way to try and snap the driver’s focus back on the road. Of course, it is likely that this system will be something that can be switched off by the driver, so we’ll have to wait and see how effective it can be. As the father of a son who just started driving, I’m hoping to see an option where I can make it so it cannot be switched off by the vehicle’s operator. Perhaps a gentle electrical jolt would be fine as well, or even a graphic of a parent waving a finger to go along with the coffee cup graphic.

What’s clear with the way that technologies are being developed, is that vehicle manufacturers are looking to put more and more infotainment features in the car (e.g., touch screen and voice control of functions, navigation system, WiFi, Bluetooth link to smartphone, access to apps). This perhaps increases the distractions that drivers already have, making the driver alert technology more important. Understandably enough, regulators are not as keen as manufacturers with adding more infotainment systems. In addition, more of the energy generated by a vehicle’s engine is being used to power these features and therefore less is used for locomotion. The closer we get to an autonomous vehicle, the more demands will be put on the energy that a vehicle’s engine can generate.

In many respects, there is still a long way to go before we see autonomous cars occupying our city streets. Many of the current technologies we are seeing in modern vehicles seem to be more about safety improvement and crash avoidance than they are about developing the autonomous car. The question then becomes what we can do to accelerate the deployment of these safety and crash avoidance features. The answer appears to be to find a way to make these technologies standard equipment. In March of this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety announced a commitment by 20 automakers representing more than 99 percent of the U.S. auto market to make automatic emergency braking a standard feature on virtually all new cars no later than 2022. Toyota followed that announcement saying they were targeting the end of 2017, so other manufacturers are likely not far behind. It will certainly be interesting to see how vehicle technologies develop toward the autonomous vehicle, should the manufacturers and the federal government continue to see eye-to-eye in this area.

Scott Lennox, FSA, FCIA, FCAS, is a staff fellow for the SOA. He can be reached at slennox@soa.org.