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.