This week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), both Audi and Toyota unveiled autonomous vehicle systems. Both claim to want drivers to remain attentive, active participants behind the autonomous wheel. What I want to know is how they plan to do that.
According to a press release from Toyota, Toyota Group Vice President and Lexus Division General Manager Mark Templin said, “In our pursuit of developing more advanced automated technologies, we believe the driver must be fully engaged. For Toyota and Lexus, a driverless car is just a part of the story. Our vision is a car equipped with an intelligent, always-attentive co-pilot whose skills contribute to safer driving.”
Audi touted the same ideals when discussing what it calls its “piloted driving” feature, equating it with autopilot on an airliner– a system that is designed to lighten the load on the pilot, but not remove him from the equation entirely, keeping him around in case he should need to assume manual control. Getting already distraction-prone drivers to actually assume such a “pilot” role may prove to be a challenge, however.
To be fair, Toyota is at this point looking at what it calls its Integrated Safety Management Concept as a way to make drivers better, safer drivers by way of autonomous technologies designed to prevent driver screw-ups. As our Terry A. Miller put it in his coverage of the concept’s unveiling at CES this week:
“While key components of these research efforts could lead to a fully autonomous car in the future, the vision is not necessarily a car that drives itself. Instead, Toyota and Lexus envision technologies that enhance the skills of the driver, believing a more skillful driver is a safer driver.”
That’s not so different from other active safety technologies we’ve been seeing for the last several years on a number of different makes, including automatic collision-avoidance braking and systems designed to wake up a drowsy driver while keeping him between the ditches.
Audi, on the other hand, has become the first automaker to get licensed to test fully autonomous vehicles in the state of Nevada, where CES is held. One has to wonder if, despite their insistence on calling it “piloted driving,” thus inferring the driver should maintain a watchful eye on all movements just as an airline pilot should when flying on autopilot, the folks at Audi might have dreams of a day when you could just as well sleep or play Angry Birds for the entirety of your commute.
The question remains how automakers expect to enforce their insistence on alert drivers in an age of increasing automobile autonomy. Mercedes will issue a warning buzz if the car detects the driver’s hands are not on the wheel, but the promo video for the new S-Class doesn’t make clear if the near-autonomous adaptive cruise control system will shut off when it doesn’t detect the driver’s hands on the wheel, or if the wheel and driver’s seat will just mindlessly buzz away as the driver is treated to an impromptu massage, Stuttgart style.
Mercedes may be on the right track, though. Regardless whether it’s Mercedes’ warning buzzer that gets adopted industry-wide as a driver alertness enforcement regime or other manufacturers come up with such a system, what is abundantly clear is that with the advent of autonomous vehicles, now is the time to start thinking about how best to keep drivers engaged in the “piloting” process.