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For sale today: Automated cars

A trailblazer of automation: the BMW 7 series. (Photo: BMW)

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Angelo Rychel
Angelo Rychel
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Automated driving – a remote fantasy for research engineers and Silicon Valley nerds? Not anymore. In the year 2016 you can actually buy cars capable of automated driving. This article tells you where to look.

We usually think of the future when we talk about automated driving. Fully automated driving, that is. We know that several years will pass until drivers can hand over full control to their vehicles – and even more years until driverless cars will not require a human at all. But you don’t have to gaze in wonder at revolutionary concept cars to envision automated vehicles. In fact, you can buy cars with stunning automation features today. If you take a look at our very roads, it is easy to see that automation is already here – to stay. 

So where do we stand at the moment? To answer this question, it is helpful to take into account the six levels of vehicle automation. Various cars on the road today are equipped with assistance features of Level 1: they can take over either steering or acceleration – but you still have to carry out the other. Those features include Adaptive Cruise Control, Park Assist or Emergency Brake Assist.

State of the art: Level 2 automation

But some series vehicles already take you a step further into the future: to Level 2 automation. The systems of these – admittedly rather pricy – rides can assume both longitudinal and lateral control, at least in specific use cases. Take the Tesla Model S (Autopilot), the Mercedes E-Class (Drive Pilot) and the BMW 7 series (Driving Assistant Plus): at highway speeds, those trailblazing vehicles are capable of relieving the driver of basically all the work.

They automatically accelerate and brake; they keep the lane and the distance to the vehicle ahead – with the driver’s hands off the wheel and his foot off the pedals. Other OEMs follow hard on their heels: YouTube videos indicate that the Active Lane Control feature of the Infiniti Q50 can be used in a similar fashion. And Cadillac has announced a partly-automated system called Super Cruise for 2017.

The Cadillac CT6 will feature a partly-automated system in 2017 (Photo: Cadillac)

So far, the Model S and the E-Class stand out: They can even overtake other vehicles in a highway setting. Just touch the indicator lever and they change lanes independently and cruise past the vehicle in front. 

Faster than the law allows

So can you read the newspaper while being driven in those cars? Maybe you could – but you are not allowed to. Those advanced automated features have outstripped existing legislation. Current laws in most countries require that the driver is continuously monitoring the drive and is able to take over steering at any time. This is why in the new E-Class, which will be available in April, warning signals start flashing when your hands come off the wheel for more than a couple of seconds.

And make no mistake: even those frontrunner vehicles are not the perfect machine yet. They do not always detect constructions sites properly; they sometimes have trouble mastering tight bends – and they are not designed yet for complex inner-city traffic. But for some people, the temptation to just let go of the wheel seems too strong. This is evident in countless YouTube videos of Tesla customers fooling around with their autopilot. Tesla CEO Elon Musk felt the necessity to attach “some additional constraints” to enabling the feature.

A chauffeur for the daily drag: Stop & Go

But there are other use cases where partial automation is already taking place – and in fact relieves drivers of some of the most tedious driving tasks. Tasks such as steering through stop and go traffic: the Volvo XC90, the BMW X5, Volkswagen’s Passat and Audi’s Q7 and A4 all feature sophisticated traffic jam assists. Both Ford and Nissan have announced to bring such a feature to market in 2016.

The Volvo XC90 comes with a sophisticated traffic jam assist. (Photo: Volvo)

Those gridlock assistants use a video camera and radar sensors to follow the preceding vehicle. As long as the traffic is moving slowly, the system is able to take over steering as well as accelerating and braking on its own. The speed range varies between the car models. The Volvo XC90’s Pilot Assist, for instance, works at speeds under 30 mph, while the Q7’s traffic jam assist even manages 40 mph.

A cure for parking pain

Besides mastering gridlocks, one of the biggest nuisances in daily traffic is the search for a parking space. Park assists that steer the car independently into a parking space have been on the market for a while now. But in these cases, the driver still has to do the accelerating and braking.

Advanced automation delegates parking entirely to the vehicle. After your car has identified a parking space, you can hop off. The vehicle then pulls into the parking space on its own – with the driver only monitoring. Upon request via app or key remote, it will move out of its spot again. This is especially useful for tight parking spaces or garages where boarding and alighting can be tough a call.

Once more it’s the triumvirate of Model S, E-Class and BMW 7 series that offers this service right now. Other manufacturers still have to catch up. Nissan, for instance, is planning to release a similar feature in 2018.

Drivers of the new BMW 7 series can remotely park their car. (Photo: BMW)

The number of partially automated vehicles on our roads may still be limited at this point. But it is sure to increase substantially as more OEMs implement advanced driver assistance systems in their cars. The step to Level 3 automation will then be a decisive one. Level 2 still needs the full attention of the driver. It is in his responsibility to adjust the car’s driving according to traffic signs or identify that what looks like a free parking space is actually in a no-parking zone.

At Level 3 and higher, the driver will be freed from monitoring the vehicle – at least in certain use cases. A highly automated car will be able to recognize its limits and notify the driver in due time when he has to take over again. Volvo claims its IntelliSafe Autopilot used in their Drive Me project will even allow fully automated driving on certain highways. The driver would not even be required as a backup in those use cases. So far, no series vehicle is capable of this. But this scenario is probably going to become reality within the next few years. The path towards fully automated driving looks to be incremental, but steady.

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Angelo Rychel
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