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Technology May 2013

Self-driving Cars Great for Seniors

By Bill Siuru

Sensors and computers can already do a better job in monitoring surroundings and provide faster reaction times compared to humans. These are two major reasons seniors have to give up driving.

For decades people have talked about cars that drive by themselves. Now, advanced electronics and computers could make them a reality. Experts predict the first highly automated production vehicles by 2020, with fully automated cars expected by 2025. Automated vehicles could let seniors drive longer before having to give up the keys.

Automation will come incrementally. Vehicles equipped with some type of self-driving technology are already in dealers’ showrooms. Several automakers offer adaptive cruise control that automatically adjusts vehicle speed to maintain a safe following distance. They automatically reduce speed or apply brakes should the vehicle ahead slow down or stop. Ford, Cadillac, Lexus, BMW and others offer parking assistance that automatically steers, while applying the throttle and brakes to maneuver into or out of a parking space.

While most major automakers and their suppliers have electronic co-pilot projects underway, BMW has perhaps the most ambitious technology. Thus, it represents a good example of where the technology is headed. While BMW is known for its Ultimate Driving Machines, it is a world leader in electronic and computer technology, much of it under the ConnectDrive label.

Traffic Jam Assistant, debuting in the BMW i3 electric car, helps in congested city traffic. It maintains a safe distance between vehicles, controls speed and steering, and can stop the car if necessary. As long as the driver keeps one hand on the steering wheel, it keeps the car precisely in its lane at speeds up to 25 mph.

BMW's Traffic Light Assistant, now in development, communicates with traffic lights helping to eliminate constantly stopping and starting at traffic lights. The system informs the driver about the optimum speed to match the timing of the traffic lights. In the future, this could be done automatically in a manner similar to active cruise control. Likewise, advancements to BMW's currently available Attention Assist that detects driver inattention and Lane Departure Warning systems would not only warn drivers, but take over control should the warning not be heeded.

Emergency Stop Assistant, which will be part of BMW ConnectedDrive's Advanced Emergency Call, monitors the driver for incapacitation. If its biosensors detect a medical emergency such as a heart attack, it will take over and bring the vehicle to a safe stop on the side of the road. It will also call for help and activate emergency flashers. The emergency call will include vital information for emergency medical teams to ensure a quick and efficient response.

Sensors and computers can already do a better job in monitoring surroundings and provide faster reaction times compared to humans. These are two major reasons seniors have to give up driving. Sudden acceleration should be a thing of the past. Systems like BMW's Passive Front Protection will detect a possible collision whether it be another vehicle, object or kid on a bicycle and alert the driver. If the driver doesn't react, braking will be applied automatically.

There are other benefits. Increased reliability and reduced reaction times mean reduced accidents. Since automated vehicles can travel at closer intervals and at higher speeds, road capacity is effectively increased to reduce traffic congestion and even eliminate the need to lay down new pavement. Because computers can operate cars more efficiently than humans.

There are two major challenges to automated vehicles. First, there is the cost. LIDAR (laser radar), ultrasound sensors, computer vision systems, and other sophisticated electronics are expensive. Fortunately, they are electronics whose prices typically drop dramatically with widespread use.

Secondly, governmental regulations limit, and in most cases prohibit, the use of driverless cars on public roads. These will have to be changed to allow even already existing technology to be used legally everywhere. Fortunately, this is already happening. Three states - Nevada, Florida and California - are the first states to pass legislature addressing self-driving vehicles.

For obvious safety reason, the situation will be probably be assessed by at least two different measurement methods. All systems must operate at 100-percent reliability in every type of driving situation. Automated functions can always be overridden by the driver.

Aging and affluent baby boomers represent a huge market. Auto manufacturers could capitalize on this by offering vehicles that could extend the purchase of the "last car" for many years.



No. 1. Autonomous driving technologies will appear in stages, with partially automated driving possible from 2016, highly autonomous systems available from 2020, and fully autonomous systems appearing in vehicles from 2025.

No. 2. A self-driving car could make freeway driving in heavy traffic safer and less stressful, while allowing more vehicles to use the roadway.


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