"This year at CES we're seeing practical applications of autonomy, and we're starting to see consumers getting more accustomed to that under the guise of safety," said Jon Rettinger, president and editorial director of TechnoBuffalo, who chaired the panel on future driving.
Just outside the convention center, France's Induct Technology was demonstrating its just-launched Navia, a US$250,000 self-driving shuttle designed to ferry people around university campuses, airports and other zones with limited traffic. The company calls it the world's first self-driving commercially available vehicle. The Las Vegas Monorail zipped by overhead, of course, but it uses a purpose-built track.
"We use mainly SLAM (simultaneous location and mapping) lasers to map and detect obstacles," Induct marketing and communications director Max Lefevre said as he ushered me into the all-electric shuttle. Soon it was silently transporting us around a test track. "The lasers see up to 200 yards, and the vehicle knows to either slow down or stop if there's an obstacle."
Some Induct customers will have a Navia fleet this year, Lefevre said, but he wouldn't identify them. The shuttle has been extensively tested in areas full of pedestrians, he said, adding that legislative changes are needed for wider deployment.
Large automakers are working with the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to make cars more aware of their environment by using vehicle to vehicle (V2V) communications. Not far from the Navia test track, Ford showed off a Taurus SHO sedan equipped with this protocol, which wirelessly shares vehicle speed, heading and GPS data with nearby cars, in a series of safety demos.
I sat in the rear seat as the Taurus hurtled toward an intersection while another Ford vehicle to the right approached at speed from behind cars blocking the view. In what seemed like a second or two before impact, the Taurus alerted its driver to stop with flashing LEDs projected on the windshield, a sound alarm and vibrations in the seats. He then slammed on the brakes.
The NHTSA has been evaluating V2V tests and is expected to announce a policy for bringing it to commercial implementation in a few weeks, according to Farid Ahmed-Zaid, a technical expert in Ford's Active Safety Department. While the technology could reduce fatal collisions dramatically, Ahmed-Zaid admitted that, "If GPS fails, then you don't have anything."
Some industry observers are concerned that making cars smarter, more aware and more independent could erode driver skills. That could become an inevitable effect of automobile evolution, just as fewer people today can operate a manual transmission than in motoring's early days.
But one thing that many car owners won't miss is drudgery driving, especially parking. Audi, Bosch and Valeo demonstrated vehicles at CES that can parallel-park or backup-park themselves with just a swipe of an iPhone when the driver is away from the car. Driving to a shopping mall, getting out and then having your car park itself — a kind of automatic valet function — is an extension of assisted parking that would require regulatory changes to become widespread.
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