A very mediatized Google driverless car seen zooming up and down the freeway in Silicon Valley has certainly attracted a lot of attention about what the future of driving might be like, but the real revolution of autonomous driving has already begun.
Driverless cars will not suddenly appear on the roads in 2020, when carmakers hope to begin offering autonomous or nearly autonomous production vehicles. Instead, cars will gradually add autonomous features during the coming years. Already, automakers offer some of these features in production cars. Mercedes leads the way for the moment with its commercially available Mercedes S-Class. It has also developed a working prototype of a driverless car, as have BMW, Volkswagen, Volvo, and, of course, Google.
"We already offer autonomous driving with existing sensors from the existing S-Class," Johann Jungwirth, head of North American R&D at Mercedes, recently told me. "It is not science fiction anymore."
Mercedes says the S-Class, which recently became available in the United States and Europe, becomes the co-pilot by taking over the steering and braking controls in certain situations. For example, the car will negotiate turns and steer around curves.
The Mercedes S-Class has several autonomous features, but the dashboard sports
a large red panic button, just in case.
Braking is applied to one side of the car to prevent the driver from changing lanes when another car is passing in the blind spot. Thanks to a camera that scans the road surface in 3D behind and in front of the car, the car brakes when a collision is imminent. Cameras can also detect if a car in front of the vehicle the S-Class is following has stopped, or if there are obstacles ahead that the driver might not see.
A night vision system detects people and animals in the middle or on the side of the road. The car makes a distinction between the two by shining a spotlight on human pedestrians to warn both them and the driver. It does not do this for animals, since they can freeze up or react in a dangerous way when a bright light is shone on them.
Other carmakers are offering autonomous features. BMW's X5 (this month) and Mercedes's E-Class (next year) will offer hands-off driving in congested traffic areas. A BMW prototype that debuted a few years ago parked itself in a garage with a remote control as the driver stood outside. Other mainstream carmakers are expected to follow suit in the next 3-5 years.
Sensors, 3D cameras, and processor algorithms that can activate the steering, braking, and suspension without human input make driverless cars possible. Carmakers handle much of the algorithm development in-house, but automotive OEMs will increasingly rely on third-party suppliers for the development of mass-scale electronic components.
The advent of driverless cars will depend on technology and supply chain developments. Before totally autonomous vehicles are commercialized, suppliers such as Autoliv, Bosch, Continental, Siemens, and Valeo will need to offer carmakers cheaper and faster processors and imaging sensors. You can expect luxury cars with full-featured autonomous capabilities to debut first. The technology should eventually trickle down to mainstream models. One day, everyday models like your Ford Taurus or Toyota Corolla should be able to drive themselves off dealer lots.