Levelling the driverless playground dream

No technological path is straight and smooth and this is especially applicable to assisted and autonomous driving. Recent examples of missteps abound – the Uber death crash in Arizona, the fender-bender between a Waymo test car and a bus, the opening day traffic mishap with a Navya self-driving shuttle in Las Vegas, etc., etc., etc. Progress is being made, certainly, but it can be choppy. One case in point during the latter part of 2017 saw a pair of notable developments in assisted/autonomous driving. One is a clear advance, the other a retreat.

We’ll dive into the good news first, namely Super Cruise, Cadillac’s ballyhooed new Level 2 assisted system. The General Motors unit kicked off an assertive marketing campaign to hype Super Cruise, which is built into the 2018 edition of its CT6 luxury saloon car. Cadillac describes it as “the world’s first true hands-free driving system for the highway”. Hype aside, that’s an effective short-and-sharp description. It can only be used on limited-access highways in which each side is separated from opposing traffic. That’s because Cadillac, teaming up with its partner Usher, has created LiDAR maps of every inch of such roadways in the US. The maps are stored in a hard drive in the vehicle’s trunk.

And, yes, an operator doesn’t need to lay his or her paws on the wheel. “Super Cruise is the first driver assist system that allows drivers to truly remove their hands from the steering wheel and feet from the pedals,” says Cadillac product and technology communications executive Donny Nordlicht. It permits this through its very self-descriptive Driver Attention System, a solution that uses head tracking software linked to a small camera on the instrument panel to make sure the individual in the driver seat is paying attention. A light strip on the top of the steering wheel flashes when the system senses that attention flagging; if there’s no response, it’ll start flashing an angry red, and issue sound and seat vibration alerts. If the human occupying the seat still doesn’t respond, the car will halt, turn on its hazards, and send an alert to the company through the OnStar service.

Driver Attention System “combines with a GM-exclusive LiDAR-based map database of over 160,000 miles of roads and an advanced, high-precision GPS system (accurate to approximately two metres),” added Nordlicht. Cadillac always seems to mention the hands-off aspect of the operation and for good reason. It is a step ahead for assisted systems, since existing solutions (such as Tesla’s AUTOPILOT) require frequent hands on the wheel regardless of how much driving work the car is doing.

For the most part, reviews of Super Cruise in the automobile press have been positive. One evaluator that took a hands-free cruise on it is Engadget’s Roberto Baldwin, who travelled from Phoenix to Los Angeles using the technology. “It surprisingly does live up to the hype if you're on a pre-mapped highway,” he said. “During my drive, the system was driving the car about 70% of the time. I just had to pay attention.” Still, he cautioned that Super Cruise has its limits. Says Baldwin: “It is impressive but it doesn't do things like change lanes for you which is difficult for a car to pull off be because it has to navigate two lanes and the traffic within those lanes instead of one.”

Now on to the less-good news. One setback for autonomy initially looked like an item of progress. In mid-December Volvo announced that its long-gestating Drive Me autonomous experiment had launched in its headquarters city of Gothenburg, Sweden – two local families were to receive XC90 SUVs kitted out with the latest, commercially available, assisted functionalities, plus in-car monitoring devices for purposes of the test. Over the coming four years, the automaker will introduce more features into the cars. It’ll also expand the project to up to 100 users. The goal is to help put a Volvo Level 4 vehicle on the road in 2021.

But this programme has been scaled back from the original conception. Volvo originally aimed to have 100 cars prowling Gothenburg streets. Also, at first it anticipated that platoon would have some self-driving capability. According to a report in Automotive News, the reasons for the scale-back are that Volvo hasn’t yet picked a sensor set for its more advanced vehicles and its costs for Level 4 functionalities are prohibitive. The company is apparently also concerned that their test subjects aren’t yet fully confident in autonomous functionality.

So at the end of the day, 2017 concluded with a one-step-forward, one-step-back pair of news items for assisted driving. On balance, though, these represent an advancement for the technology in a process that will take some time and we shouldn’t be discouraged. Engadget’s Baldwin offers a realistic assessment of the current state of affairs. “The [artificial intelligence] and processing power isn’t there yet and won’t be for a while. Meanwhile, automakers are testing dozens of ways to make this work,” he added. “Some will succeed, some will fail. That's just how progress works.”


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