An alternative to autonomy

Jaguar Land Rover is focusing on developing systems that assist drivers rather than replace them.

There’s little doubt at this stage that the driverless car is just around the corner. In fact, in many respects, it is already here – you just can’t wander into your local dealership and buy one yet. Huge progress has been made with autonomous vehicles in recent years, with Google in particular making big strides in the US. In May, the tech giant revealed figures on collisions that have occurred during the initial stages of its driverless programme, claiming that the handful of minor incidents have been the result of third parties and/or driver error.

According to Google, its autonomous vehicles have not been responsible for a single fender bender. “I guess our biggest learning from the accidents has been that people  don’t pay attention, even trained drivers,”  said Google co-founder Sergey Brin at the company’s recent shareholder meeting.

JLR auto1

What is the future then for human beings behind the wheel? Brin, who heads up Google’s driverless project, seems to imply that people simply cannot be trusted to drive to the same level that computers can, and the figures so  far support him. Computers do not get tired,  or angry, or distracted by the latest billboard advertising on the drive home from work.

But fully autonomous vehicles are a little way off yet. Google’s cars can navigate the California highways with ease, but they are not being let loose on the winding streets of San Francisco during rush hour just yet. The ability to navigate complex and constantly evolving traffic situations remains solely with us – for now at least.

”Autonomy is not going to appear as a revolution overnight. From our point of view, it is a journey that increases, over time, the complexity and the capability of the various features 

Wolfgang Epple, director of Research and Technology, Jaguar Land Rover

If Dr Wolfgang Epple has anything to do with it, it will remain that way as well. Jaguar Land Rover’s (JLR’s) director of Research and Technology said he is not interested in driverless cars, and wants the driver to be at the centre of technological change. Speaking last month at JLR’s technology showcase in Gaydon, Epple outlined his vision for autonomous vehicles, and the role of human agency in the future of driving. “Autonomy is not going to appear as a revolution overnight,” he said. “From our point of view, it is a journey that increases, over time, the complexity and the capability of the various features.”

For Epple, car autonomy is something that should be there to assist drivers, not replace them. He said JLR has no intention of developing a driverless car, and the notion is not one that appeals to the many employees at JLR for whom driving is not simply a way to get from A to B.

This sentiment is one many drivers around the country will undoubtedly relate to. Cars  are more than simply a method of transport  for some people, and driving can be enjoyable when roadworks and traffic are not around to spoil the fun. Lots of people find driving relaxing, and the idea of handing over the controls to a computer and essentially being taxied around is not something everyone finds appealing.

That’s not to say technology doesn’t have  a role to play; just that it should develop to assist drivers rather than push them aside. The programmes JLR is focusing on are intended  to do just that. Mind Sense is an ambitious project investigating if brainwaves can be used to gauge driver alertness, monitoring brain activity through the steering wheel and delivering prompts when concentration slips.

JLR auto2

Elsewhere, The Engineer recently covered JLR’s progress with Pothole Alert, a system designed to map hazards on the road surface.

Other technologies on display in Gaydon included the Predictive Infotainment Screen,  a system that uses cameras and path-tracking filters on the central control panel to predict where fingers are aiming. JLR claims this increases the speed of successful button selection by 22 per cent, reducing the amount of time drivers have their eyes off the road. The system is being trialled in conjunction with Mid-Air Touch, which provides haptic feedback to the fingertips using ultrasonic sensors.

The common aim across these projects is to make life easier for drivers, improving safety and comfort rather than working towards driverless cars. As technology evolves, however, and companies such as Google continue to push the boundaries of vehicle autonomy, it will be interesting to see if JLR can remain true to the values of Epple. In the future, there will certainly be a market for fully autonomous cars, capable of operating in all environments. But for now, JLR’s focus remains firmly on the driver. Humans still appear have a future behind the wheel. For how long, we shall have to wait and see.