It's official: Car makers are coming for your brake pedal.
Automatic emergency braking has been an optional feature in luxury models from several auto manufacturers for a few years now, but with every major manufacturer now committed to developing autonomous vehicles, human-initiated slowing and stopping could soon become a thing of the past.
"It's increasingly becoming standard equipment," says Jeremy Carlson, a senior analyst with IHS Automotive. "We're not at the point where it's required by regulators in any part of the world yet, but we're getting there."
Europe is leading the charge. The Euro New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP), a voluntary safety association backed by the European Commission, requires vehicles to have automatic emergency braking in order to achieve its full five-star safety rating.
While NCAP's blessings aren't mandatory, they are highly sought after by car makers for inclusion in their marketing.
Manufacturers are thus voluntary building in automatic-braking systems, which use radar, cameras or light-detection and ranging technology to identify potential collisions ahead of the car. When a possible situation is detected, the system takes over and hits the brakes independently of the driver.
Carlson says voluntary safety measures such as those suggested by NCAP are generally good previews of what will eventually become full regulatory requirements.
Back-up camera parking assist is one example. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the United States will require such systems starting in 2018, five years after they were first introduced by the U.S. chapter of NCAP.
Car makers themselves believe automated braking is an important next step to having vehicles drive themselves. They say that while human drivers may initially resist the technology, it will eventually become second nature to rely on it.
"In my experience, once you're driving with it, you don't want to drive without it because you realize that braking is actually a dumb activity," says Maarten Sierhuis, director of Nissan's Research Center in Silicon Valley. "It's very cognitively [demanding]."
Nissan offers automatic emergency braking as an option in several of its luxury models, including Maxima and Infiniti, but it will soon start filtering down into lower-end brands. Eventually, Sierhuis says, it'll come standard in all models.
"It's built for the highway, but it's very useful in the city, too, because it's an extra safety," he says.
The next step for the technology will be migrating from emergency-only situations to full autonomous slowing and stopping, where the car applies brakes proactively rather than just reactively. Carlson says this will start to happen at different speeds and in different kinds of traffic.
Just as with the initial emergency braking step, it's likely to first roll out into luxury cars and in faster highway driving situations before migrating into lower-end models and city driving.
That migration will require integration with other systems. Current automatic braking generally focuses only on what's ahead of the car, but autonomous system engineers suggest this will evolve as it starts to work with other functions such as lane departure warnings and blind spot detection.
"Instead of just beeping at me or vibrating if I'm going to change lanes and hit someone in my blind spot, these things are actually going to take control of the steering wheel and keep me in the lane I'm in," says Thomas Bloor, senior manager of global business development for Ottawa-based BlackBerry QNX, which is co-developing the self-driving vehicles that will soon be tested on Ontario roads.
"The decision-making for a fully autonomous car or a much more sophisticated system will be based off a 360-degree awareness around the vehicle as opposed to just what's in front of it."
More holistic systems will inevitably pose new problems for manufacturers, Bloor adds, because the cars will then have to make more of their own decisions.
Currently, cars equipped with automatic emergency braking have only one course of action to follow when they detect a potential collision – they brake. But such scenarios will become more complex when the car understands that there are other vehicles around it or close behind it. Manufacturers are struggling with what the car will do in such situations – will it brake, swerve or perform some other action?
"That's a bit of an undecided question right now," Bloor says.
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