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Autopilot – One Step Closer to Autonomous Vehicles

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With the introduction of self-driving cars, the concept of driving license would become past. But we still have a long way to go until the commercial availability of autonomous vehicles. Until then, how about autopilot enabled vehicles?

By Anagha P

Autopilot is slightly different from autonomous or self-driving vehicle, though many of the automotive manufacturers tend to interchange and use these terms. Just like the autopilot in aeroplanes and ships, it is only a way to relieve drivers of some boring and potentially dangerous aspects of road travel. The driver is ultimately responsible for and in control of the car. But it would also take care of the people inside the car when the driver has their moments of distraction.

Our system is called Autopilot because it’s similar to systems that pilots use to increase comfort and safety when conditions are clear.

Elon Musk, CEO, Tesla Motors

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Here are three major companies that made huge contributions to the autopilot system in road vehicles.

Tesla – the innovators

Tesla Model S (Image courtesy: Tela Motors)
Tesla Model S
(Image courtesy: Tela Motors)

Tesla Motors, Inc , founded as recently as 2003, is one of the most innovative and well appreciated firms in the automotive industry. The brainchild of Elon Musk (who also introduced SpaceX, the aerospace transportation designer, manufacturer and service provider), Tesla manufacture electric cars that can be upgraded with just a firmware update. Last year they came up with new hardware and software for their Model S cars, and this opens up myriad long-term possibilities for customers. Tesla’s Software v6.0 was introduced with several cool features such as the capability to access the user’s calendar and reminding of appointments, calculate the time to travel to the destination based on real time traffic data, automatically open the garage door (by connecting to Homelink), warm or cool the car based on the user’s preferences etc.

Interior of Tesla Model S (Image courtesy: Tela Motors)
Interior of Tesla Model S (Image courtesy: Tela Motors)

Capabilities: The next firmware update of the Model S, Software v6.2 or “range anxiety” update, is reported to have automatic emergency braking feature. This means that the car will attempt to automatically halt when it detects the possibility of it crashing into any object. This upgrade can be applied to all existing Tesla models made after October 2014. Model S will also be able to steer and stay within a lane (auto-steering), change lanes when you tap on the turn signal, and read road signs to manage speed using active, traffic aware cruise control. These features are sill under vigorous validation testing stages and it would take several months for these Autopilot capabilities to be completed and uploaded to the cars.

Challenges in taking it commercial: The autopilot system would currently be available only in private roads and highways as the streets often do not have speed limit signs and there would be many obstacles such as a person suddenly crossing the road. But the company hopes that, in the future the drivers could direct an unmanned Tesla car to the desired location such as the garage.

Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupé (Image courtesy: Mercedes-Benz)
Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupé (Image courtesy: Mercedes-Benz)

Mercedes – the perfectionists

The German car maker Mercedes-Benz has always been one step ahead in class and automotive technology. While other automobile giants are still working on next generation systems, in May 2013 Mercedes introduced the S-Class sedan with several autopilot features.

360° vision: This impressive car has 3D cameras and radars that cover all the views around the car and keep a watch of its surroundings. A feature termed as the “Pre-Safe” technology can detect pedestrians, other objects and the possibilities of collisions, and automatically breaks the car more quickly and strongly than a manual brake. The S-Class warns the driver about rapidly overtaking cars and even prevents the driver from moving the car to the sides when the overtaking is about to occur. It is also equipped with cameras underneath that detects a pothole or humps, and automatically adjusts the suspension to encounter this bump.

Traffic no longer nightmare: If the driver is stuck in slow-moving traffic jams, the “Stop & Go Pilot” feature can move, break and stop according to the movement of the car in front, thereby relieving the driver from this tedious task. People living in the metropolitan cities would understand how much this technology would be of service during the peak traffic hours.

Interior of Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupé (Image courtesy: Mercedes-Benz)
Interior of Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupé (Image courtesy: Mercedes-Benz)

Grandeur: S-Class is no less in the luxury end either. The seats of the car have a function to simulate a shiatsu massage. The glove box has an “Active Perfuming System” that releases any of the five aromas into the cabin at five-minute intervals.

With all these advanced and desirable functionalities and luxury offered by Mercedes-Benz, I doubt if it would do justice to label them “too costly”. Their cars are worth that money, considering the research and development they put in and features they offer. What do you think?

Freightliner Inspiration (Image courtesy: Freightliner)
Freightliner Inspiration (Image courtesy: Freightliner)

Freightliner – the inspiration

The German heavy vehicle manufacturer Freightliner got the license to operate Inspiration, their autonomous truck, on public roads. The autonomous features of this vehicle will reduce truck accidents due to driver fatigue and error during long, dull drives. It would also improve fuel consumption, cut highway congestion and safeguard the environment. The technologies used in the truck series and the functionalities they fetch are similar to that seen in its sister company Mercedes-Benz’ S-Class cars; they were just tweaked for implementing on a much larger vehicle. These autopilot features work usually in open and wide roads like highways.

Connectivity in Freightliner Inspiration (Image courtesy: Freightliner)
Connectivity in Freightliner Inspiration (Image courtesy: Freightliner)

Highway pilot: The sophisticated cameras and radar system of Inspiration scan the road at long and short range to see the vehicles ahead. It provides audio and video cues for the driver to maintain lane stability, speed control, collision avoidance, steering, and breaking.

Limitations: The issues with this version of Highway Pilot are that the truck cannot change lanes, or react to road signs or traffic lights. Moreover, this feature has been tested only in broad daylight and not during rain, fog or night. But we are hoping that the next upgrade would solve these problems and make driving of heavy vehicles easier.

Self-driving is almost here

BI Intelligence estimates about 10 million cars with self-driving features on the road by 2020.

Driverless cars are no longer futuristic technologies. There is no doubt that the electronics systems are eventually replacing most of the mechanical parts. Many of the major vehicle manufacturers such as BMW, General Motors, Volkswagen and Volvo, and even internet giants like Google and Baidu are trying to catch up with this trend set by Tesla, Mercedes etc and make their mark in automotive infotainment industry by heavily investing, developing and testing autopilot and autonomous systems. This only reinforces the increasing influence of electronics systems in vehicle industry.

Autopilot is a major step towards this technological revolution. We might see driverless cars by the end of this year, if reports are to be believed. Watch out for more info.

The author is a dancer, karaoke aficionado, and a technical correspondent at EFY.

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