The fatal crash in a Tesla Model S with Autopilot is stoking debates over the safety of autonomous vehicle technologies, but that started long ago.
Researchers and engineers have been digging into a drastic question: Is it possible to get a driver to safely take back control of a car once the vehicle has started driving itself? That question is relevant not only for cars of the future but for many of the cars already on our roads.
Other automakers including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo now have systems that use a combination of adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping, and automatic braking to enable drivers to briefly take their hands off the wheel and their eyes off the road. While Tesla drivers haven been posting videos of themselves having fun taking their hands off the wheel while using Autopilot, the more conventional automakers have taken another approach. They’ve designed their systems to take control of the car for only a few seconds at a time.
The driver must be ready to resume command at any time, according to these automakers. That will likely be changing in the future, once the technology is ready to handle it. Volvo’s Drive Me test project has been a visible part of the r&d process on driver safety utilizing features such as active sensors. The automaker thinks that autonomous vehicle technology is ready to go to the next phase.
Volvo sells cars that feature Level 2 self-driving vehicle features, including the 2017 S90. These automation rating levels come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and are expected to be released in a five-level classification system to the public soon. Like Google, Volvo is pursuing Level 4 cars — fully autonomous vehicles that don’t require any driver input aside from setting a destination.
A car changing lanes at 50 miles per hour should not expect a driver to be able to suddenly take control, said Erik Coelingh, who heads up Volvo’s autonomous-vehicle research program, Drive Me. “Some people can take control in 10 seconds, but if someone fell asleep it could take two minutes,” he said.
“I was in a driving simulator a couple of weeks ago, and they asked me to play Dots on my phone” while the virtual car was in control,” Coelingh said. “Then there was a voice asking me politely to take control, and I was like, ‘Just give me a couple more seconds to beat the high score.’”
Experiments conducted last year by Virginia Tech researchers found that it took drivers of Level 3 cars an average of 17 seconds to respond to takeover requests. In that period, a vehicle going 65 mph would have traveled 1,621 feet — more than five football fields. Some experts think that Level 3 will be necessary for safety.
“I’m hesitant to write off Level 3,” said Shane McLaughlin, the director of the Center for Automated Vehicle Systems at Virginia Tech. “I feel like we can get the machine to give the person enough time to react.”
Level 3 solutions might involve video and infrared systems in the car that monitor the driver’s attentiveness. These so-called electronic horizon technologies might also give drivers more time to react by “seeing” farther down the road, with cars able to automatically communicate with one another, experts say.