Taking Driving to the Next Level

Want a peek at the future of autonomous vehicles? You don’t have to look far. There’s a good chance you may have passed one—or been passed—on your daily commute. That’s right, the next-generation of so-called Level 2 and Level 3 semiautonomous vehicles are beginning to hit the road, providing motorists with hands-off-the-wheel and feet-off-the pedals operation—at least in some situations.

The parade of new models with advanced self-driving capabilities includes the new Audi A8 sedan, Cadillac’s all-new CT6 with Super Cruise, the Mercedes S-Class, Lexus LS and redesigned Nissan Leaf electric car.

Tesla also continues to make advances to its AutoPilot system, which debuted in the Model S and Model X electric vehicles two years ago. But in the wake of the 2016 fatal crash and other accidents involving cars operating in AutoPilot mode, Tesla and other automakers are downplaying the “autonomous” part of the vehicles.

The 2018 Lexus LS luxury sedan is the first model to feature Toyota’s CoDrive technology package, which includes variable-speed cruise control, automatic lane-keeping, automated emergency braking and active steering assist. The SAE Level 2 system also automatically slows the car as it approaches sharp curves and makes minute adjustments to center itself with a lane.

Other features include what’s described as an industry first pre-crash emergency braking system that detects pedestrians and automatically steers the car around the person if it can't stop in time. The system also tracks pedestrians in the path of the vehicle as it’s backing up, and automatically applies the brakes to prevent hitting them.

Toyota claims the combination of technologies makes the LS the “safest car in the world.” Just don’t call it autonomous. Instead, the carmaker prefers to use the term automated, so as not to create a false confidence among drivers. “We don’t want our customers to mistakenly believe that the driver doesn’t have to do anything,” Kiyotaka Ise, who heads advanced safety technologies for the company, said at the vehicle’s launch in Japan.

Nissan continues to be an early leader in autonomous driving with its ProPilot technology that was launched last year in Japan in the Serena minivan. An updated version of the system is being introduced in the redesigned Leaf electric car. ProPilot allows the Leaf to drive itself in stop-and-go traffic and at speeds as high as 60 mph on the highway. When activated, the system controls the car’s steering, throttle and braking during single-lane driving, building on the carmaker’s adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist with lane-centering technologies. The Leaf also can maneuver itself—executing as many as seven turning sequences—into a parallel, perpendicular or angled parking spot.

But Nissan stresses that ProPilot is "a hands-on, eyes-on system." The intent is to reduce stressful driving situations while keeping the driver in control. "We don't want to over-convey the capability of this system," company officials assert.

Audi’s next-generation A8 large sedan will be one of the first vehicles on the road capable of Level 3 autonomy when it hits the streets late this year. The carmaker’s Traffic Jam Pilot can be used during limited-access-highway driving and, comes with technology to park remotely in garages and surface lots

GM declines to categorize the just-introduced 2018 Cadillac CT6 into an SAE autonomy level. But that hasn’t stopped the company from claiming the vehicle’s Super Cruise technology is the first true hands-free system. As with other semiautonomous systems, Super Cruise can accelerate, brake and steer a car within a driving lane without driver input under certain conditions.

The differentiator, according to GM, is an industry-first attention monitoring device to make sure the human driver remains ready to take control if necessary. If the camera determines the driver isn’t watching the road during hands-free operation, the system delivers audio, visual and physical alerts. Should the driver fail to respond, the system turns on the emergency flashers, brings the vehicle to a stop and calls GM’s OnStar emergency center. Super Cruise is standard on the top $85,000 Platinum-edition 2018 CT6, and is a $5,000 option on lower level models.

No matter how the levels are defined or what names automakers use to market their vehicles, it’s clear that advanced driver assist systems and semiautonomous technologies have progressed well beyond the r&d and concept stages to find their way into real world vehicles. Fully autonomous Level 4 and 5 vehicles are still several years away and, at least initially, likely will be limited to geo-fenced fleet applications such as taxis and delivery vehicles. Widespread consumer use will require solving myriad technical, legal, logistical and societal challenges. But based on recent advances, don’t be surprised if this happens sooner rather than later. Welcome to the future.