LAS VEGAS—Everybody here at the giant Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is talking about self-driving, autonomous cars, but that doesn’t mean we’ll all be driving them anytime soon. The consensus, here in the dark heart of technology, is that the car will take over gradually, parking itself and avoiding accidents long before it takes complete charge.
Lexus and Audi both showed off self-driving cars in Las Vegas (one of three states where vehicles with no driver are legal). That makes for an “oh wow” moment, but it’s hard to find anyone on the floor here who’d say that the autonomous revolution is on the horizon. The challenges aren’t merely technical, they’re also legal and social.
Scott Winchip, a vice president of chassis systems at Bosch, told me, “We’re moving toward self-driving cars step-by-step. There’s new technology every year, and the latest allows automated parking and safe lane changes. But connected cars are at least a decade away. We need advances in car-to-car communications so that data can move back and forth, and we need a critical mass of cars with the technology on board.” To really have hands-off driving, cars have to be in constant contact with each other, gathering data (which has to be totally secure) and maintaining a safe distance.
I tried out Bosch’s self-parking car in Michigan recently. It’s technology that’s here now. It’s way cool to see the steering wheel spin as you sit as a passenger in the driver’s seat. But another Bosch executive, Marco Schmidt, told me that we’ll soon see a more advanced form. “The first step is you stay in the car. The next step is automatic parking without the driver.” Information on your environment will be stored in the cloud, and the car will access it to park itself away, then be summoned with the click of a remote.
Lexus put its Advanced Active Safety Research Vehicle (an LS 600) on stage, after releasing a video of it driving on a test track. The car bristled with such tech as advanced GPS, radar and laser range finders, and cameras galore. The add-ons stuck out every which way, not doing much for the LS’s lines (or its aerodynamics). Toyota built the car at its facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but it has also developed an urban driving environment for vehicles like this at its test facility in Toyota City Japan.
Here's a look at the Lexus on video:
With other automakers, Toyota is also working on Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) standards to enable vehicle-to-vehicle communications. And it could go further than that. Eventually, dangerous curves and intersections could have roadside signals that warn oncoming traffic to slow down.
Lexus says that its aim is not so much to impress people with a “look ma, no hands” car, but to field a test bed for advanced safety systems. Mark Templin, general manager of the Lexus division, proclaimed a “new era of integrated automatic safety.” He pointed out that traffic accidents are the biggest killer of teenagers worldwide, and that 32,367 Americans died in motor vehicle crashes in 2011.
The stock 2013 LS that shared the stage with the research car offers an infrared-enabled pre-collision system that warns not only of dangerous traffic in all conditions, speeds and times of day, but also detects pedestrians in the road. It flashes both audible and visual warnings to the driver, and if they’re ignored it tensions the seatbelts, applies the brakes, and takes other steps to prepare for a crash.
Toyota’s Jim Pisz explained the three elements necessary to enable advanced safety systems (which could eventually do far more to prevent collisions). “First the vehicle has to make an image of what it sees, then it has to come to a judgment based on real-time information, then it has to send it to the third level for action by drive-by-wire systems and others.” It sounds scary to let cars make decisions like that, but that’s where we’re headed.
According to Toyota spokesman John Hanson, the technology for automatic parking (even without the driver on board) is here now and was demonstrated by the company in Japan—but there are legal, social and regulatory issues to work out before it gets all that far. It’s also expensive stuff, which is why Lexus debuted it in the upmarket LS. “Let’s work together to bring down the cost of this technology and bring it to market,” Hanson said. Hence, the safety vehicle as a test bed.
Toyota hasn’t yet sought a license to drive its research cars on Nevada public roads, but Audi has taken exactly that step, following in Google’s footsteps. Audi demonstrated its self-driving cars in a parking lot here at CES, and, in partnership with Stanford, has taken a driver-free TTS the 12 miles up Pikes Peak.
Expect our cars to get more and more competent, and to start performing some of the functions we’ve taken for granted as our exclusive terrain. Then, somewhere down a long road, self-driving cars.