Autonomous driving technology takes center stage

Automakers love to display their technological prowess at the big auto shows, searching for that cutting-edge feature that will dazzle consumers.

A few years ago it was electric drive. No respectable auto show stand could be without a car with a plug stuck into its side.

But now that seems so, you know, 2010.

Instead, autonomous driving technology will be to the Frankfurt auto show what electric drive was a few years back.

Most automakers will feel compelled to include at least a taste of it in their concept vehicles, even if fully autonomous vehicles are years -- or decades -- away. So you'll see loads of "here, let us do that for you" features.

A couple of early examples:

  • At a media preview of its S-Max Concept on Aug. 27, Ford Motor Co. revealed its next-generation parking assist system. While the old one steered the car into a parallel parking spot, the new version also controls the throttle and brake. And guides you out of the spot into traffic. And parks in a perpendicular parking spot (although, really, if you can't do that, perhaps you shouldn't be driving).

The S-Max Concept also shows off a pre-collision assist feature that begins braking when a crash seems likely.

Jim Buczkowski, Ford's director of electrical and electronic systems engineering, pointed out to journalists that these technologies could one day become part of a self-guided vehicle system.

  • Mercedes-Benz, meanwhile, is billing its next S-Class as a semiautonomous vehicle. Though it has already showed its flagship car to journalists, you can expect Mercedes to talk about features such as Traffic Jam Assist, which uses a computer to control the vehicle's speed and direction at low speeds in heavy traffic.

And there's the system that detects bumps in the road before the car hits them and adjusts suspension settings. And improved adaptive cruise control with steering that automatically changes speed and lane position.

And on and on. The buzz around autonomous vehicles is building and you can expect it to increase exponentially at Frankfurt.

You can reach Dave Guilford at

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