Driver-assist technologies: who's driving your car?

Far and away the most dangerous part of any car is the pink squishy thing sitting behind the steering wheel. Human error is the cause of almost all vehicle crashes, which according to the World Health Organisation claim the lives of approximately 1.3 million people every year.
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To help improve safety on our roads, the world’s automotive manufacturers have developed – and continue to develop – a range of advanced driver-assist technologies that are designed to prevent or correct driver errors and, in some cases, take the human factor out of the equation altogether.

Adaptive cruise control

Adaptive cruise control (ACC) uses forward-looking radars to detect vehicles travelling in the same lane and automatically adjusts the car’s speed to maintain an appropriate distance between it and the vehicle in front. If the vehicle in front slows down, the ACC will trigger the engine and/or brakes to decelerate. When the lead vehicle comes to a complete stop and takes off again, ACC will resume following at a safe distance either automatically or after a tap of the accelerator from the driver.

Autonomous emergency braking

Autonomous emergency braking (AEB) employs forward-facing sensors to monitor the objects in the vehicle’s path and measure their relative speed and distance from it for the purpose of detecting if a collision is imminent. In such situations, emergency braking can be applied automatically to avoid a crash or at least reduce its severity if the driver fails to react sufficiently. Volvo’s City Safety is one of the most prominent AEB systems on the market. The Volvo V40, due in Australia in the first quarter of 2013, will expand the City Safety’s range of operation from 0-30km/h to 0-50km/h.

Blind spot monitoring

Blind spot monitoring detects vehicles in adjacent lanes not visible in either the rear-view or side mirrors and alerts the driver of their presence with a visual and/or audible warning. Some systems use radar to scan the area beside and at the rear of the vehicle while others rely on a camera system. Drivers are typically alerted to a vehicle in their blind spot by a warning light in their side mirrors. Some manufacturers, including Mercedes-Benz, offer ‘active’ blind spot systems, which counteract a possible collision by applying brake force to one side of the vehicle to attempt to keep it in its original lane if the driver does not react to the warning.

Electronic stability control

Electronic stability control (ESC) uses a number of sensors to detect a loss of steering control and automatically applies braking force to help steer the vehicle back onto its intended path. The sensors measure the vehicle’s steering wheel angle, yaw rate, lateral acceleration and wheel speed and send the data to the on-board electronic control unit (ECU), which compares driver input to vehicle response and, if necessary, applies corrective brake force to the appropriate wheels. ESC relies on anti-lock brakes (ABS) to brake individual wheels, while the majority of ESC systems also collaborate with the vehicle’s traction control system, which senses slip from the drive wheels.

Lane support systems (lane departure warning/lane keep assist)

Lane support systems recognise lane markings and alert drivers if they believe you have or are about to unintentionally cross a line on the road, often triggered by a lack of indicating. Typically using cameras or laser sensors, the systems rely on having a clearly marked lane marking on one side of the vehicle, or on both sides in some cases. There are two main forms of lane support systems. The first, lane departure warning, is designed to make the driver aware that the vehicle is in danger of crossing a lane marking, and usually does this via an audible warning or a light vibration of the steering wheel to simulate the feeling of driving over a rumble strip. The second, lane keep assist, is a more advanced system, and automatically steers the vehicle back into its lane by applying appropriate braking force and/or corrective steering input if the driver fails to react to warnings.

Low-speed camera support

Reversing cameras are becoming increasing widespread as more manufacturers add large screens into their vehicles that also facilitate systems like satellite navigation. The technology features a wide-angle camera mounted on the rear of the car to relay a mirror image of real-time footage back into the cabin to be displayed either on a screen or in the rear view mirror, giving drivers an uninterrupted view of the area behind their vehicle. Some manufacturers, including Nissan with its Around View Monitor system, integrate additional cameras to provide views from the front and sides of the vehicle. This footage can be used to provide a ‘bird’s-eye view’ perspective of the car, which is designed to aid the driver position the vehicle in relation to other parking bay lines, kerbs and other cars.

Night vision enhancement

Night vision enhancement relies on forward-facing cameras and/or infrared light sources to illuminate the road ahead and enhance driver vision. Real-time footage is visible to the driver either in the instrument cluster or through the central display screen. Night vision systems are designed to identify pedestrians and give audible and/or visual alerts to the driver. ‘Active’ night vision systems project infrared light (which is invisible to humans) to illuminate the road ahead in the relayed images, while ‘passive’ systems capture thermal radiation already emitted by the objects using thermographic cameras. Active systems provide a higher resolution image but passive ones typically have a longer range.

Parking assist system

The most mainstream form of parking assistance systems are proximity sensors, which most commonly use ultrasonic detectors in the rear and/or front bumpers to calculate the vehicle’s distance from nearby objects by measuring the time taken for sound pulses to be reflected back to a receiver. Most proximity sensor systems produce an audible warning (a beep) that increases in frequency as the distance between the vehicle and the object decreases, and others incorporate a visual aid on a display screen.

Self-driving vehicle

The ultimate driver-assist technology, the autonomous or ‘driverless’ car is designed to take complete control of the vehicle’s acceleration, braking and steering functions. Combining radar, GPS and other sensory systems, autonomous vehicles use advanced computers to interpret the road ahead to find appropriate navigation paths, maintaining a safe distance from other vehicles and obstacles and obeying street signs and other road rules in the process. Mercedes-Benz appears set to become the first manufacturer to offer a vehicle with an autonomous driving mode. The next-generation S-Class, due to launch in 2013, is expected to feature a driverless mode that allows it to follow traffic without any input from the driver at speeds up to 40km/h.

Driver-assist technologies will undeniably play an enormous role in reducing the road toll and improving vehicle safety over the coming years. Question marks hang over some of the systems, however, with an independent review of blind spot monitoring, lane support and parking assist systems by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety in the US finding either no change or an increase in the number of claims submitted by owners of vehicles equipped with these technologies, suggesting more work needs to ensure the systems are actually useful and are working as effectively as possible. Driver-assist technologies are an unstoppable force in the automotive world, although at this stage they should not be seen as an alternative to driver education and training.