Drivers will still be required to pay constant attention to the road, for instance. In the words of automated driving experts, these systems are “feet off” and “hands off,” but they will not be “eyes off” or “mind off.”
For the time being, these systems will only be used on limited-access divided highways with on-ramps and off-ramps. On these roadways, there are no pedestrians, bicyclists, or double parked trucks. Vehicles with this technology will be able to drive at relatively high speeds, but only in simple traffic situations.
Bryan Reimer, a transportation researcher with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab, said it will be decades before people can buy truly self-driving cars in which humans ride solely as passengers.
Until then, people will experience greater levels of “collaborative driving,” in which people still play a critical role by overseeing the computers and machinery operating the vehicle and by driving themselves in complex situations, he said.
Keep your eyes on the road
Still, the technology that will be rolled out by the major automakers this year will do more than most so-called Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, or ADAS, do now.
This new Super Cruise system will handle lane changes on its own when requested by the driver using the turn signal. It will also be easier to turn the system on, according to GM.
Super Cruise only works on highways that have been previously laser-mapped in three dimensions by the company. That detailed 3D map data is combined with “regular” digital maps to allow the vehicles to stay in their lanes even while navigating curves and avoiding other vehicles. GPS positioning and the vehicles’ radar sensors and cameras are used to enable drivers to unhand — and unfoot — all the controls.
Drivers still need to pay attention, however. A camera above the speedometer and tachometer makes sure the driver is looking at the road at all times. Or, at least, almost all the time. If the driver looks away from the road for more than a few seconds, the system will stop working.
That’s important because Super Cruise, like other ADAS, isn’t intended to replace a human driver. It’s just supposed to relieve the driver of the mundane tasks of maintaining a lane position and avoiding other cars. But it can be tempting to think the machine has it all under control.
“We’re human. I mean, I’m no longer fully engaged in this,” said MIT’s Reimer. “I’m willing to, you know, perhaps trust the automation a little more than I should until something goes disastrously wrong.”
Consumer Reports has ranked the Super Cruise system as the best and safest of the ADAS they’ve tested, largely because of that driver-facing camera, said Kelly Funkhouser, head of connected and automated vehicles at the consumer group. Tesla’s Autopilot would rank higher than Super Cruise, she said, if Tesla vehicles also directly monitored driver attention.
Too good to be true?
These hands-free driving systems are probably as close as car buyers will get to a real self-driving vehicle for a long time — despite some automakers’ claims to the contrary, experts say.
“They will oversell their features for sure,” Funkhouser said.
Tesla has claimed that its Full Self-Driving software, which adds capabilities to Autopilot, will allow a vehicle to steer itself even in urban environments.
For now, Tesla still warns that drivers must pay attention at all times while any of its vehicles’ driver assistance systems are operating.
Reimer said the sensors in Tesla’s cars simply will not allow for genuine self-driving in complex environments in the near future. Specifically, Teslas lack the lidar sensors most experts say are needed for a true self-driving car. Lidar bounces laser light off surrounding objects, and times how long the light waves take to return to sensor. In this way, it builds a three-dimensional image of a vehicle’s surroundings moment-by-moment. Radar does the same thing with radio waves, but lidar provides a much more detailed picture.
“To complete the ability, to get what I would call a robust and reliable model of the environment around the vehicle, you would need to add a fourth sensing technology, in addition to cameras, radar and ultrasonics,” said Kay Stepper, senior vice president for automated driving and driver assistance engineering at the auto parts supplier Bosch. “Now [you’d have to add] lidar.”
MIT’s Reimer agrees. Without the accuracy of lidar, it just isn’t possible to completely release humans from the task of driving.
“Doing it successfully nine out of 10 times is probably feasible,” said Reimer. “Doing it reliably enough that I’m willing to walk on the street [with these cars around]? Different story.”
GM and Ford’s hands-free systems do not use lidar sensors, but they still require a human driver to pay attention at all times.
Tesla, which generally does not respond to media inquiries, did not answer emails and calls about its plans for its Full Self-Driving system. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said in the past, though, that the system will be reliable and safe thanks to advanced artificial intelligence software that has “learned” from the millions of miles driven by Tesla vehicles. With drivers’ permission, Tesla’s self-driving software runs continuously in a background “shadow mode.”
“They will not release an actual full self-driving product for some time, possibly several years, barring major breakthroughs,” Brad Templeton, an autonomous driving industry consultant, said of Tesla. “Even with a major breakthrough they won’t do it this year or next.”
“So what I have been expecting to see is a little bit more of this gimmicky type of stuff that’s not actually very useful,” she said.