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Cars Not Driverless Yet, but Not Far Off

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — The April 1958 issue of Modern Mechanix magazine painted the picture of a future when driving is a leisurely activity, one where passengers could sit and chat or read newspapers or get some work done in an automated car.

“You’ll reach over to push the button marked, ‘Electronic Drive.’ Selecting your lane, you’ll settle back to enjoy your ride as your car adjusts itself to the prescribed speed,” the magazine said in a piece about an experimental 400-foot section of road outside Lincoln, Neb., dubbed the Electronic Highway of the Future.

“Fantastic? Not at all,” the article continued.

Nearly 60 years later, such a world doesn’t exist, not quite yet. But nearly every auto manufacturer is working to make the Modern Mechanix vision a reality, although without the circuit boards and lights embedded in roads the magazine predicted.

Tesla has said it will offer self-driving capabilities in its cars later this year despite the regulatory hurdles that must be overcome. Ford is working toward having fully autonomous commercial vehicles on the road by 2021.

Last year, General Motors acquired Cruise Automation – no price was announced, but estimates have rangedbetween $580 million and $1 billion – and, earlier this year, said it is ready to mass produce autonomous cars once the software is complete and regulations allow the cars on roads.

The Mercedes-Benz S-Class models offer the Drive Pilot, which controls speed and steering, leaving the driver to monitor what the car is doing and, if necessary, take over controls. By 2021, Volvo aims to equip all of its models with autonomous capabilities, although some of its current models have semi-autonomous driving features.

It’s that category that many vehicles on the road today fall into. Each brand has its own name – Volvo Pilot Assist, Tesla Autopilot, Toyota Safety Sense, Cadillac Super Cruise – but many of the features are the same. Most common are adaptive cruise control and keeping the car in its lane, although higher levels of autonomy can expand these features to include changing lanes and reacting to stop signs or traffic jams.

These features use a combination of cameras and radar installed around the car to detect its position and speed relative to other vehicles, controlling the car as necessary to round corners, avoid traffic and reduce the damage suffered in collisions.

“Our vehicles aren’t quite there yet [with full autonomy] and people are a bit afraid of that technology,” says Ralph Gilpin, general sales manager of Apostolakis Honda in Cortland. “They’re bringing it along in steps. Honda has an advanced semi-autonomous system that aids you in driving. They don’t replace you as a driver.”

The features come standard on the 2018 Accord and Honda has announced its intention to have Level 3 autonomy in its cars by 2020 and Level 4 by 2025.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration introduced the six-level classification system in October 2016. Level 0 covers vehicles as they have been since their invention: with the driver in full control of everything. Level 1 cars have one feature, such as braking or steering, controlled by the computer system.

At Level 2, the car controls two or more driving functions. Level 3 has the same requirements, but cars assume control of “safety-critical functions” under specific traffic and weather conditions with the driver ready to intervene if necessary.

The final two levels are fully autonomous vehicles, with Level 4 cars limited to self-driving on roads and Level 5 cars capable of driving on their own in any terrain or conditions, although experts note the final level is a way off as companies are still focusing on developing road-ready cars.

“Autonomous can be a blurry word,” says Chuck Masirovits, new car manager of Toyota and Volvo of Warren. “A lot of this technology exists, but it’s being metered out to where we can handle it.”

Some drivers are uncomfortable riding in a car and not in total control of everything. Others share concerns over the possibility of their cars being hacked – 400 million vehicles come factory-equipped with internet connectivity around the world, according to The Wall Street Journal – while others still just enjoy driving.

“I don’t think we’re at the state where people want to sit back and let cars drive themselves,” says Mike Hudock, general manager of Stadium GM in Salem. “Down the road, in the future? Everything could be that way. But I don’t know that we’ll see it in our lifetime.”

GM’s first autonomous system, the Cadillac Super Cruise, is arriving at dealerships for the first time via the Cadillac CT6. The system works only on divided, limited-access highways – anything with exit ramps like Interstate 80 or intersections like state Route 82 between Warren and Brookfield – in the United States and Canada.

Looking away from the windshield for 15 seconds deactivates the system and vibrates the seat to alert the driver. After being deactivated, the car has to be shut off before Super Cruise can be used again.

Semi-autonomous features are catching on, though, especially once customers get used to the capabilities of their car.

“Most customers come in and don’t know much about it all. We’ll demonstrate it and let them see it firsthand and they’re amazed,” Gilpin says. “They put it on new CR-V on all EX and above trims. That was the first time it was available on something other than a model that’s fully loaded. It really brought that model to its peak sales.”

Some customers panned anti-lock brakes when they were first made available because they didn’t like the way the car made them feel when it slowed down.

“Now, I don’t know that you can buy a car without ABS,” Masirovits says. “Manufacturers are making investments in safety because there are more cars on the road and more distractions on the road.”

Volvo, he continues, has held driver and passenger safety as its core tenet in car design as far back as 1959 when engineer Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seat belt. Recognizing the life-saving potential of the invention, Volvo decided to release the patent, leading to the industrywide adoption of the safety belt.

“Volvo sees [autonomy] as an important safety feature,” Masirovits says. “Toyota saw it as a responsibility to put it on their cars. You don’t have a choice; it’s going to come with it. We’ve never had any pushback [from customers].”

Volvo’s Pilot Assist II is standard on its S90, XC90 and V90, with plans for it to be on all models by 2021. Toyota’s Safety Sense is standard on 11 of the brand’s models.

There are caveats to the technology. In the end, a car is still a two-ton chunk of metal and plastic put on top of four pieces of rubber. Automated cars still won’t stop on a dime if they’re going 80 mph – that’s the top speed Volvo’s Pilot Assist program allows – even with driver input. The cars can, however, work to steer away from oncoming traffic or slow down if a car swerves into its lane. And, of course, an attentive driver can always take control herself.

“It’s not a replacement for paying attention behind the wheel,” Masirovits says. “It’s there to help.”

Pictured above: General Motors’ first autonomous driving system, Super Cruise, is available on the 2018 Cadillac CT6. The system can be activated only on limited-access highways.

VIDEO:
‘3 Minutes With’ Semi-autonomous Technology at Apostolakis Honda

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.