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Smart cars: changing lanes

With increasing connectivity, smartphone integration, sensors and radars for assistance, auto-braking and blind spot detection becoming the norm these days, it seems safe self-driving cars will become a reality soon


Autonomous vehicle software start-up nuTonomy has been testing self-driving taxis in Singapore. Photo: Bloomberg
Autonomous vehicle software start-up nuTonomy has been testing self-driving taxis in Singapore. Photo: Bloomberg

New Delhi: Chances are, you are already visualizing a self-driving Uber dropping you home after you’ve had one drink too many at a party on a Friday night. With increasing connectivity on the move, integration with your smartphone and smartwatch, sensors and radars for assistance and safety features such as auto-braking and blind spot detection, that dream may soon come true.

“Self-driving vehicles are developing at a rapid pace and such technological advancements can help us reach our destination faster and safer. They will also help us reduce emissions and protect the environment,” said Violeta Bulc, a Slovenian entrepreneur and European Commissioner for Transport, while announcing the European Union’s initiatives around smart and green mobility in 2016.

Chipmaker Intel Corp. is focusing on data, telematics and hardware for smart cars, and is already powering infotainment systems in cars made by Hyundai Motor Co., Kia Motors Corp. and Infiniti Motor Co. Ltd.

“Cars are rapidly becoming some of the world’s most intelligent connected devices, using sensor technology and powerful processors to sense and continuously respond to their surroundings,” said Brian Krzanich, CEO, Intel, ahead of the Fortune Brainstorm Tech Conference in July 2016.

Smartphones driving smart car evolution

Smartphones are the very foundation of this change. Research firm Gartner Inc. forecasts that by the year 2020, more than 250 million cars will have Internet access. “Cars are increasingly taking place of a second home and we believe that customers are progressing rapidly,” says Guillaume Sicard, president, Nissan India operations. It is no surprise that tech giants Apple Inc. and Google Inc. are investing heavily in the CarPlay and Android Auto platforms, respectively.

By connecting your smartphone to the car infotainment system and with voice commands, you can make and receive calls, have messages read out to you, and get access to your music library and navigation.

Maruti Suzuki India Ltd was among the first carmakers in India to offer the Apple CarPlay feature, in cars including the Ciaz sedan and the Baleno hatchback. “The major risk associated with Apple CarPlay was the acceptability of the feature by Indian car consumers. However, the initial response has been very encouraging and consumers are valuing this feature a lot,” says C.V. Raman, executive director, engineering, Maruti Suzuki.

But Maruti Suzuki wasn’t really the first mover in India. American carmaker Ford Motor Co. had developed smart in-car systems, along with BlackBerry Ltd and Microsoft Corp. much earlier and the Indian market got its first taste of the Sync platform in 2013 in the EcoSport crossover, which featured voice commands to control phone and music, and emergency assistance which, in the case of an accident, activates the airbags, shuts off the fuel pump and makes a distress call to the helpline number. Sync has since been updated, and now supports third-party apps as well. Indian carmaker Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd allows users of the XUV500, TUV300, TUV100 and Scorpio vehicles to connect to their car using a free app called Blue Sense (Android and iOS), and users can control the air-conditioning and audio functions, and also monitor real-time vehicle information, including tyre pressure, fuel economy and more.

Assisting the driver

Smartness is not just about the smartphone and Internet-driven features for your car. “Globally, we are investing in autonomous drive, electric vehicles, and connected mobility solutions, three forces which are going to change our industry, and our world,” says Nissan India’s Sicard. One of the primary tenets of this smartness is to assist the driver, making the sometimes perilous activity of driving simpler and safer through advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). These include radar-based adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking.

Car buyers in India are still behind the curve when it comes to the newer technology. Regulations, economics and prevailing infrastructure dictate what car makers can and cannot do in India. Ford Motor, in the US for example, sells the Escape SUV ($23,600 onwards; Rs15.8 lakh approx.) with technology that can alert the driver in case of an unintentional lane drift, if there is another vehicle in your blind spot zone and also auto-manoeuvre you in and out of a tight parking spot. The new Endeavour SUV in India (Rs23.78 lakh onwards) offers only the semi-auto parking assist feature at present. Unfortunately, unique conditions dictate the relevance of some of these features. Says Maruti Suzuki’s Raman, “Bumper-to-bumper traffic is very common in metros, driving habits are a little unusual and there can be abrupt intervention by pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes or even cars and there are infrastructure concerns for detecting unregulated overhanging hoardings, signs on roads and the radar’s own field of vision.”

However, things are slowly changing. “The government’s opening up of radar frequency earlier this year shall see more such features in cars. This is just a start and a step-by-step approach needs to be taken for a long-term benefit,” says Tom von Bonsdorff, managing director, Volvo Auto India. The company’s S90 luxury sedan has semi-autonomous features, which includes Lane Keeping Aid—there is a digital camera in the car which keeps an eye on the lane markers and if the driver does not provide steering input to correct a drift, the steering automatically corrects itself to keep the car within the lane.

The government, on its part, is making basic safety features mandatory in all cars from October 2017. Carmakers will have to provide airbags, vehicle reverse sensors, speed-warning systems and seatbelt reminder systems as standard features from October 2017, according to a draft notification issued on 9 November by the ministry of road transport and highways.

Me time

Self-driving and semi-autonomous cars, just as ADAS features, rely on multiple radars, LIDAR (laser imaging detection and ranging), various sensors, smart algorithms and powerful processors to find their way from point A to point B. The processing speeds are already mind-numbingly fast, with no room for even the slightest error.

The prospect of a self-driven Uber taking you to office every day is a reality that is being constructed rapidly. “It’s still very early. Self-driving Ubers have a safety driver in the front seat because they require human intervention in many conditions, including bad weather. In many cities these will be very hard problems to solve, so there will be some time before we see this technology everywhere,” said an Uber spokesperson.

The company’s self-driving car trials in Pittsburgh, US, involve automaker Volvo. An autonomous vehicle software start-up, nuTonomy, is testing self-driving taxis in Singapore. It started off with six cars, and the fleet is soon expected to double. Moreover, by the year 2020, almost all major car makers, including Audi AG, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, Daimler AG, Ford, General Motors Co., Kia, Nissan Motor Co., Ltd, Renault SA, Tesla Inc. and Toyota Motor Corp., are likely to be selling vehicles that can at least partly drive themselves.

To ensure that autonomous vehicles have a smooth ride, the vehicle-to-vehicle as well as vehicle-to-infrastructure communication with smart road networks, roadside sensors and smart signal systems will prove critical . For example, such infrastructure has allowed Google to do driverless car tests in the US, Volvo in Gothenburg, Sweden, and Volkswagen AG in Braunschweig, Germany. Bonsdorff concludes: “One important factor is to create and develop laws and traffic regulations on self-drive. Till now, India does not have these. Also, car insurance companies need to include driverless cars into their coverage.” India’s policy makers will do well to listen to this.

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