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Can new car technologies help us become better drivers?

Can new car technologies help us become better drivers?
Tristan Honeywill

Autonomous vehicles are the car industry’s current cool technology. It’s a bit like electric cars and hydrogen fuel cells: a nice, futuristic idea that sounds progressive,  but few people seriously expect to have it on their driveway in the next year or so. Anyway, most of us would still be pretty unwilling to let go of the steering wheel completely.

You generally get a more realistic sense of the direction cars will take from looking at the technologies being developed by the industry’s big suppliers. This week safety company TRW announced that it has started production of a new Lane Keeping Assist technology that uses closed loop control. It will appear on two vehicle platforms in Europe next year, gently “coaching” drivers to stay in the centre of their lane.

The idea that technology can help to make us all better drivers isn’t talked about as much, but it makes much more sense than a fully autonomous vehicle. The core technologies are essentially the same: Lane Keep Assist (LKA) uses a video camera to scan the road ahead. They just work with the driver instead of replacing him or her: the car’s electric power steering applies a short counter-steer, just enough to help the driver to keep the vehicle in its lane.

The clever part is the control algorithm. There are basic Lane Keep Assist systems out there already, but they only activate when you reach the edge of your lane. I’m not sure how helpful they are. TRW’s closed loop version can monitor the steering more closely. Instead of correcting, it encourages the driver to keep to the middle of the lane. If that’s not what the driver wants, he just has to turn through a little bit of resistance in the steering. System over-ridden. Simple.

The potential benefits for road safety are significant, particularly on the high-banked roads of the US. There, around 50% of road deaths result from cars leaving the highway. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that lane departure warning and lane keeping assist systems could save more than 7,500 lives in the USA each year.

The idea of technologies that will help to make us all better drivers is a lot more interesting than a fully autonomous vehicle

“Technologies like this are starting to form the basis for semi-automated driving,” said Andy Whydell of TRW. “This is the first step towards a system with full lane centering that will help to keep the driver in centre of their lane at all times.”

One of the big hurdles for fully autonomous vehicles is the question: if there’s an accident, is the car or the driver responsible? It’s a legal minefield that cars with semi-automated driving should avoid. Semi-automated means control of the vehicle is still the driver’s responsibility.

Even the most highly trained drivers can make mistakes. The consequences can be terrible. If technology can do more to help make us better drivers, I’m all for it. It’s a lot more sensible than just hoping things never go wrong.


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