Time to decide who’s in the driving seat

Manufacturers are predicting the wholesale adoption of ‘intelligent’ car control systems within the next five years. But there are obstacles, not least the public’s fear of ‘Big Brother’.

European advances in in-vehicle information and control systems were well in evidence at this month’s seventh World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems in Turin.

Manufacturers from across the Europe demonstrated technologies ranging from real-time traffic and travel updates, through adaptive cruise control, to advanced systems including intelligent speed adaptation (ISA), lateral control for automatic lane-changing, and — from BMW — ‘ConnectedDrive’ integrated driver assistance. The ConnectedDrive prototype incorporates adaptive headlight control for upcoming curves, heading control and automatic braking intensity displays to warn following vehicles. Advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), in which locally-based Fiat showcased current progress, use digital mapping for location finding and combine elements such as ISA, cruise control, collision warning and driver alerts for lane-keeping.

Underlying much of the glittering new technology, however, lurk a number of factors which will materially affect its deployment: timing, scale, market acceptance and, not least, institutional barriers. On the marketing front, one Turin exhibitor, Dr Matthias Thorner of German global digital mapping specialist Navigation Technologies stressed the need for carmakers to make the business case for wide-scale introduction of intelligent transport systems to its customers. Mobile communications and information systems for route guidance and travel updates have enjoyed early driver acceptance, particularly in upper-range models.

In Japan, some five million units are already in use and David Clowes, secretary-general of Intelligent Transport Systems United Kingdom, predicts that within five years all new vehicles in the UK will be fitted with navigation systems to enable drivers to avoid incidents and congestion.

Control systems present more complex issues, dealing as they do with the sensitive matter of driver autonomy. They fall into two categories: relatively straightforward versions, such as adaptive cruise control (ACC); and more advanced ones such as intelligent speed adaptation (ISA) and ADAS.

Available in Japan for around seven years ACC was launched in Europe on Jaguar’s XKR in 1999. Jaguar’s system is based on Delphi Automotive Systems’ Forewarn radar range sensor and allows drivers to maintain a pre-set cruising speed on clear roads. Packages such as ADAS represent the logical next step because they involve integrating existing technol-ogies rather than inventing new ones. But they bring their own challenges in terms of achieving wide-scale deployment. Comments John Turner, chief scientist at the UK Transport Research Laboratory says: ‘The major issues in vehicle-based ITS no longer have anything to do with engineering. Most of what can be done has been demonstrated and the remaining problems are legal, political and societal’.

One key area of concern is what happens at the human-machine interface, says Dr Mark Brackstone, of Southampton University’s Transport Research Group. ‘Automotive designers have the skills and resources to design plenty of intriguing new systems but no-one yet has a comprehensive understanding of how people will use and react to them.’

Without such knowledge, manufacturers fear the reality of an electronic system taking over even partial control of a vehicle may make them vulnerable to legal action. Their concerns are such that, in North America, development work on certain ITS control applications is slowing down until better information becomes available. The reason that carmakers have tended to use Europe rather than the US as their launch pad for technologies such as ACC lies in the fact that the European legislative climate is far more conducive to deployment of innovations.

John Turner, who has been investigating the issue with lawyers, feels that manufacturers are being overly timid. He cites the introduction of anti-lock braking systems in the US in the 1970s and in the UK in the 1980s, establishing precedents which have subsequently been applied to early cruise control and are equally relevant to ACC. NavTech’s vice-president of corporate marketing and strategy, Salahuddin Khan, accepts the need to ‘weigh the benefits of safety against the risk of lawsuits’.

To reduce liability, especially in the US, the industry is currently working with the government to create minimum performance requirements for ADAS.

He also recognises the importance of gaining consumer acceptance of in-vehicle intelligence. Put simply, consumers have to learn to trust what their car is telling them.

Manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic have used focus groups to find what drivers will and won’t buy. Concerns emerging range from the ‘Big Brother’ syndrome to the risk of ‘taking the fun out of driving’. One issue concerns the length of time that operating an in-vehicle ITS function can take without the driver becoming distracted from driving.

In the US, the Society of Automotive Engineers is responding to current research by informally adopting a ’10-second rule’ as standard for the maximum safe interval, and European organisations such are following suit.

Fiat chief executive Paolo Cantarella predicts that a number of control systems such as collision warning and avoidance and lane-keeping alerts will become widely available over the next five to 10 years. Much longer deployment timescales, however, are predicted for advanced technologies such as ISA, despite the increasing interest in Europe. Trials are under way or have been recently completed in Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK.

ISA systems automatically warn drivers they are exceeding legal speed limits or physically prevent them from doing so by controlling the fuel supply. The Netherlands is the only country to have tested the latter, mandatory type of ISA on busy city streets over an extended period.

Elsewhere, the emphasis is very much on voluntary ISA. In Sweden — the setting for the largest single trial, involving around 6,000 drivers — Volvo has recently formally aligned itself with the project on the basis of a non-mandatory system.

Even this level of activity is well in advance of the US situation, where the concept of the driver ceding any degree of control of his/her vehicle comes up against a deeply ingrained culture of personal freedom. In Europe, with its more heavily congested roads and cities, the potential benefits are seen as not only increased safety but smoother traffic flows.

A relevant example concerns the variable speed limits recently been introduced on the M25. With ISA systems, there is no practical problem about speed limits being automatically reset as vehicles pass under the relevant gantry — so relieving drivers of one area of decision-making on busy roads. Turner sees no reason why this ‘small additional step’ should not be taken, given sufficient political will to overcome negative perceptions.

‘You could in some cases achieve marginally greater throughput’, says Mark Brackstone. ‘But this would depend on the majority of drivers being ISA-equipped and there is obviously going to be a lengthy period before this happens’.

In deployment terms the options lie between the public either being persuaded to adopt control technologies by carmakers promoting them as marketable benefits, or being required to have them by law. The UK external vehicle speed control (EVSC) project, run by the University of Leeds, envisages new cars being fitted, from 2013, with ISA capability which would become mandatory from 2019.