The age of automation is a lot closer than you think

There’s a new buzzword invading the automotive world — connectivity. In simple terms, it takes everything a smartphone can do and moves it into the automobile. All manufacturers are chasing the same goal, and that is using the wireless cloud to improve safety, convenience and infotainment technologies while easing congestion. It is an all-encompassing technology that is rapidly becoming a must-have feature, and not just for high-end cars.

The list of fancy names seems endless — Audi Connect, BMW ConnectedDrive, Chrysler Uconnect, Infiniti InTouch, Kia UVO and Mercedes-Benz MBrace2. Likewise, GM’s 4G LTE-based system will be available in most 2015 Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac models. Down the road, other manufacturers will introduce their take on the wireless world — Hyundai’s Connectivity Concept is slated for introduction in 2015. In many cases, these advanced systems not only recognize voice commands, they now understand hand gestures like swipe.

However, beyond this level of connectivity is a new world altogether, and that, ultimately, will manifest itself in the autonomous (or self-driving) car. In this regard, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class currently sits atop the techno charts — it has more bells, whistles, cameras, sensors and radars than anything else on the road, and it all falls under the Intelligent Drive umbrella. Using a combination of gizmos like self-steering, adaptive cruise control and so on, it can steer, accelerate and brake all by itself. Yes, many cars currently have the ability to steer (most use it to park) and some can assist the driver in staying in a lane (Acura RLX), but nothing comes close to the S-Class in terms of its ability to do what is normally the driver’s job.

Mercedes-Benz S 500 4MATIC Coupé

Mercedes-Benz S 500 4MATIC Coupé
Handout, Mercedes-Benz

At this point, M-B’s autonomous driving ability is limited to a few seconds without the driver’s hands being on the wheel — the system is smart enough to sense when the driver has taken his/her hands off the steering wheel and quickly flashes a warning. It does, however, have the built-in wherewithal to look after the driving for much longer. At the launch of the S63 AMG, I had the car do the driving for almost a minute, and it was along a fairly twisty road with narrow lanes and no real curbs. It was an impressive demonstration of a fledgling technology.

The future will take this ability and layer it with another level of connectivity — the ability to interact with the infrastructure (Car-to-Infrastructure or C2I) and other cars in the immediate vicinity (Car-to-Car or C2C).

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Last year, I rode in the car of the future — a Lexus GS 350 equipped with the company’s autonomous drive system. It was weird watching the driver sit behind the wheel and do absolutely nothing for the entire 12-kilometre test route. The robotic chauffeur was in charge of the driving. It accelerated and braked the GS to maintain a preset distance behind the car ahead as it negotiated the corners on the highway without any human input. I say corners, because in Tokyo the highways do not have minor kinks in otherwise straight thoroughfares, there are some pretty serious corners flanked by imposing barriers. None of this fazed my electronic chauffeur, but it did faze me at first.

When the drive commenced, there was a Toyota Prius leading the way through city streets and towards the highway. It was equipped C2C communications. Everything the Prius driver did was obeyed and these actions were simultaneously transmitted to the Lexus, which then mirrored the inputs. The remarkable part was that about halfway through the demonstration the Prius disappeared, leaving the Lexus to its own devices — using 3D imaging, radars and a host of other sensors it negotiated a busy Tokyo highway without missing a beat.

Autonomous driving

Mercedes is among the automakers testing the practicality of autonomous driving systems.
Handout photo, Mercedes-Benz

When this technology will actually hit the road is open for debate. As it stands, all of the technology needed to make any automobile drive autonomously is ready to roll. The infrastructure, however, is far from ready. It will take both the C2I and C2C sides of the equation to be put into place, which will take several years to accomplish and prove it works when there’s a mix of autonomous and driver-controlled cars sharing the same road. When this does come to fruition the driver’s obligation for doing the physical driving could drop to less than 10% of a given journey — from the driveway to the connected roadway would be about it. At the end of the drive, the car would putter off, find an empty parking spot and back into it all by itself. At day’s end, using a smartphone app to summon the car, it would bring itself back to a predetermined pick-up point and give the rider a hands-free ride home. Audi already has an A7 with this capability — Piloted Driving, as it’s called, is already being demonstrated and it is in live scenarios.

The upside is that when all is finally ready to roll, autonomous driving has the potential to turn a stomach churning rush hour commute into some treasured relaxation time. It won’t happen in my lifetime, but eventually the driver will be able to join other cars in an automated train, read the National Post on a tablet, which is connected wirelessly through an on-board network, as the car whisks the rider to work. Fanciful, perhaps, but it is a reality in the not-too-distant horizon.

The purist in me views the dawning of the autonomous age with a sense of dread. But as a realist, I recognize it has the potential to improve safety and ease congestion. That is not a bad thing.

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