By Mack Hogan
A cherry-red Tesla Model S follows the curve of the shaded two-lane state road, with Duane LeFevre at the wheel. As a the car ahead slows to turn, the Tesla slows with it, keeping a safe distance. But LeFevre’s hands aren’t on the wheel, and his feet are flat on the floor. The car is in Autopilot mode, and it’s one of many vehicles today that can negotiate simple driving situations like freeway cruising without driver interventions.
With the rise of technologies like adaptive cruise control and active lane keeping, fully self-driving cars are getting closer to reality every year. Adaptive cruise control, a radar-based system that automatically adjusts a car or truck’s speed in response to other cars on the road, appeared first in its modern form on the 1999 Mercedes S-Class. The technology, a major step towards fully self-driving — or autonomous — cars, is now available on dozens of models including mainstream cars like the Honda Accord. Automakers say the technology isn’t about convenience, it’s about safety.
“Volvo has set a goal that in 2020, no one will be hurt or seriously injured in a new Volvo car or SUV. Autonomous technology is a big part of that goal,” Jim Nichols, a Volvo spokesman, said. “Computers don’t get tired or distracted. People do.”
Volvo has pioneered a variety of active safety systems to help with the goal, including software that helps to stop the car from unintentionally going off of the road and a feature that prevents drivers from turning left into oncoming traffic. The company’s new S90 sedan is the first vehicle to have Pilot Assist — which allows the car to drive without the driver’s hands on the wheel at speeds up to 80 mph — standard.
“Making these technologies standard is a big step for safety. By 2018, our entire lineup will be replaced, and every new car will have semi-autonomous technology standard,” Nichols said.
Research suggests that making the technology standard is a necessary part of bringing about self-driving cars. A study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that 54.6% of Americans were unwilling to pay extra for even fully autonomous vehicles. Jeff Davis, general manager of Mercedes-Benz of Boston, says despite Mercedes offering adaptive cruise control for over a decade, uptake has been surprisingly low.
“People who already have it want it again, but many people still aren’t familiar with it,” Davis said. “If those features were standard, I think everyone would like them. But a lot of people aren’t willing to pay more for [self-driving features].”
Duane LeFevre, a business professor at Northeastern University and owner of a semi-autonomous vehicle, says he wouldn’t want a car without self-driving features again. His car, a Tesla Model S fitted with what Tesla calls “Autopilot,” can completely control the cars steering, throttle, and brakes on the highway without driver input. The car will even change lanes automatically if the driver activates the turn signal.
While Tesla officially asks that drivers keep their hands on the wheel at all times, the vehicle only reminds you to touch the steering wheel every few minutes. If the driver does not respond to multiple warnings, the vehicles comes to a stop and activates the hazards. LeFevre says the system usually only requires driver input when lane markings become obscure. Any time the car has required his input while in Autopilot mode, he says, there has been a clear problem with the road markings or infrastructure.
“We were once crossing newly reopened bridge where the road lines hadn’t been repainted, so the car tried to center itself between the emergency lane and the edge of the bridge, so I had to take over. Any time the car has required me to take over, there has been a clear issue with the road markings or something like that.”
In situations where road markings disappear or are obscured, humans rely on best guesses. Computers, however, can’t do that. Joshua Hertz, a professor of engineering at Northeastern University, argues that the car has to adapt to the infrastructure, not vice versa.
““For our infrastructure, we have a solution that exists — a human driver. Until [car companies] can solve their issue with the infrastructure, I don’t see the public sinking a lot of money into changing [our road infrastructure].
The biggest change in terms of infrastructure, he says, will not be roads and bridges, but rather an end to parking facilities and lots. If the car can control itself, the idea of it sitting in a lot unused just waiting for the owner seems wasteful, as it can operate more on a need basis rather than a personal one.
“I think when autonomous cars become a reality, there will be no reason for owning a car anymore. I have a car because I want to have it when I need it, but if we have autonomous cars there’s no reason that I won’t be able to whip out my phone and call one,” Hertz said. “I think owning a car is a pain. They’ll become like a utility. I don’t own my electrical wires, but electricity is there when I need it.”
As LeFevre’s Model S comes around another bend in Autopilot mode, it approaches an intersection. When the road markings stop and the intersection begins, the car jerks the steering wheel, seemingly trying to find the center of the road without markings. The nose of the car is pointed straight at the curb, but as the camera notices the lines continuing after the intersection, the wheel twists hard left, the car overcorrecting past the median before settling back in its lane. LeFevre kept his hands off the wheel for the entire event, confident in the car. The car has more control than it ever has before, but there’s still a ways to go before drivers hand over full control.
“For the foreseeable future, every Volvo vehicle will come with a steering wheel,” Nichols said. “Volvo thinks that is an important part of safety.”