Motorist is weak link in self-driving cars
CHICAGO -- At least a half dozen automakers are developing systems in which computers drive cars in stop-and-start traffic without drivers' help.
In early demonstrations, the systems work well. But they have the same weak spot: the motorist.
The tricky part comes when the computer returns control of the vehicle to the motorist. This happens when traffic starts to speed up, for instance, or the road's lane markings, which the vehicle monitors to guide itself, are covered with snow.
Automakers have experimented with driver notifications such as buzzers, vibrating seats and visual warnings on the navigator screen. But what if the driver is distracted, reckless, sleepy, upset, texting -- or even drunk?
"That is the biggest challenge with these systems -- to make sure that the motorist doesn't misuse it," said Christian Schumacher, chief of Continental's North American advanced driver assistance systems, at a press event here.
Autonomous vehicles, which can accelerate, brake and steer themselves with the aid of radar and infrared cameras, offer motorists the prospect of a safe, stress-free commute.
Traffic jam assist systems, which guide vehicles on well-marked highways at speeds up to 25 mph or so, are the next logical step.
Mercedes, Audi, BMW, General Motors, Ford and Volvo have previewed such systems, while suppliers such as Continental develop sensors and software.
At the Chicago Auto Show, Continental unveiled Driver Focus, a monitoring system that ensures the motorist is not distracted.
An infrared camera mounted behind the steering wheel monitors the driver's eyes. If the driver's attention wanders at a bad time -- say, when a truck ahead suddenly brakes -- the system warns the driver.
Such a system could be used during normal driving, or in conjunction with autonomous driving in slow traffic, such as traffic jam assist.
Daimler AG has demonstrated an alternative for its Traffic Jam Assistant, which operates at speeds up to 25 mph. The system requires the motorist to keep hands on the wheel -- even when the computer is doing the driving.
If traffic starts moving faster than 25 mph, the computer gradually disengages from steering and lets the motorist take over.
May be coming on Cadillac
GM showed a different approach during a demonstration of Super Cruise, GM's version of traffic jam assist. On a small display screen mounted behind the steering wheel, a green LED light indicated that the system was on, while a red light indicated it was off.
GM has said it plans to introduce Super Cruise sometime after 2014 -- most likely in a Cadillac -- but GM spokesman Dan Flores says the company is still studying the computer-to-driver transition.
"The car can't drive itself all the time," Flores said, "and the driver has to re-engage when notified. When Super Cruise is on the road, we certainly won't suggest that the driver can fall asleep or fail to pay attention."
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