Driverless cars and heightened road-safety technology unveiled at Las Vegas tech show

January 8, 2013

During a frustrating rush-hour jam, drivers of an experimental car from Audi will be able to take their hands off the wheel, lift their feet from the pedals and focus on things other than the road, such as a movie or a newspaper. The car will take care of the driving.

Toyota is working on safety technologies it hopes will drastically cut collisions and auto deaths. High-definition cameras, radars, infrared projectors and satellite-connected tools will alert drivers of lurking dangers. The car will say a child is about to run into the road, that traffic has come to a screeching halt around the bend, or lights at the next intersection have gone dark.

At the 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show on Tuesday, automakers unveiled their latest advances, which aim to turn the car into more of a super-smart moving computer than an engine on wheels. The accident-averting and driverless vehicles won’t be market-ready for years. But Audi said Tuesday it began testing its auto-piloted car on the highways of Nevada this week — following Google, which began similar testing last year.

The carmakers hope to tantalize CES attendees with the possibility that most cars of the next decade will bring down collision rates and offer sanctuaries during long, traffic-snarled commutes. Cars will recognize owners through biometric data and keep out thieves. And they will park themselves in the most challenging spaces with no one inside.

Audi’s cameras sound alarms if a driver falls asleep on auto­pilot mode. It warns occupants from blocking the windshield with an open newspaper.

“We think driving should be an enjoyable experience, and we want to take out those experiences that have become joyless, like traffic jams,” said Bjorn Giesler, a development officer in Audi’s piloted driving division.

But the advances also raise a host of questions. Consumers might not be comfortable with their cars monitoring their behavior so closely. And while driverless cars have been approved in states such as California, the federal government has yet to rule definitively on the matter.

Some analysts note that while some technology, such as infrared projectors, can see farther than the human eye, it cannot replace a driver’s instinct and judgment, especially in a fast-moving, dangerous scenario.

“That balance is very important, and that is why we are taking it one step at a time,” said Jim Pisz, corporate manager of business strategy for Toyota’s North American operations. “The vision is not to have a car drive itself but to have a co-pilot with much more information to assist the driver.”

Other safety experts add that some of the new features sound promising. But they caution that past efforts have failed to deliver on their potential.

For instance, some studies show anti-lock brakes, a much-touted feature at the dealership, haven’t made much difference in averting collisions, said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an insurance industry-funded research group. Past efforts to alert a driver if his car is drifting out of its lane have also been disappointing, he said.

That’s partly because drivers became less vigilant in cars that promised to protect them, these experts say.

“All this technology is exciting and holds promise, but they need to be properly analyzed in the real world to identify which systems work and encourage widespread adoptions of those features,” Rader said.

On the other hand, Volvo’s “city safety” feature has been proved to reduce accidents, Rader said. The carmaker put cameras on its windshields that could detect sudden stops of vehicles ahead and automatically trigger brakes. The technology lowered insurance claims on forward collisions for Volvo sport-utility vehicles by 26 percent compared with other SUVs, Rader said.

So far, Audi’s driverless cars can only be used during traffic congestion and parking. With the press of a button on the steering wheel, the car switches to auto­pilot mode. And it can go back to manual driving by pressing the button again.

The car will be introduced “within the decade,” Giesler said, adding that the German carmaker hopes to make a completely driverless vehicle in the future. Audi is working to gain testing licenses in three other states.

The driverless-control and safety devices integrate a bevvy of new technologies that are improvements on recent innovations. Side and rear cameras detect whether a pedestrian is walking toward the car or away. Several high-definition cameras embedded throughout the body provide a 360-degree view of the surroundings. Infrared cameras can distinguish whether a faraway object is human.

On Tuesday, Toyota showcased its Active Safety Research Vehicle, a Lexus LS Sedan covered with scaffolding holding large cameras, radars and sensors. Tested at research facilities in Ann Arbor, Mich., and in Fuji, Japan, the car synthesizes reams of data from those machines to automatically make turns, slow or speed up.

Toyota said it isn’t focused on building a driverless car, as Google and Audi are, but on relieving drivers of some of the burden of being behind the wheel.

“A driverless car is just a part of the story,” Pisz said. “Our cars are intelligent, co-piloted vehicles that create a safer driving experience.”

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Cecilia Kang is a staff writer covering the business of media and entertainment.
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