Does the auto industry need a better sense of technological direction to reach Level 3? Robert Gray investigates

“It’s obviously critical,” asserted IHS Automotive senior analyst, autonomous driving, Jeremy Carlson, launching headlong into a discussion about the need to increase a vehicle’s field of view before moving closer to a fully autonomous car.

Carlson continued: “You need to understand what’s going on around the vehicle in a 360 degree view to know what to do: it’s coming up on a traffic jam, it may be able to auto brake and mitigate the force of impact but there may be enough time to avoid the accident. If the vehicle doesn’t know what’s going on in the blind spot, you can’t take that evasive action. It’s important to have sufficient range to know how fast cars are coming behind you.”

This is just one example of the real-world scenarios that automakers, partners, and suppliers are preparing for as they look to move from the so-called Level 2 ADAS, or L2, to L3 on the road to truly autonomous vehicles in L4.

“We’ve taken the first step with traffic jam assist and higher speed auto pilots, lane-keep assist and monitoring, the next step is adding lane change,” Carlson stated, adding, “It’s all about integrating, application fusion as opposed to sensor fusion; bringing systems together and forming a central decision maker. But the driver still has to say it’s okay to change lanes. The vehicle’s not going to complete it if there’s something in the blind spot.”

Carlson is not alone in discussing this area as a linchpin for achieving autonomy. “The sense of awareness is absolutely important for cars to robustly operate in real-world scenarios,” said Vijitha Chekuri, director, delivery and operations, IoT Solutions, at Lochbridge.

He said the key is creating a vehicle that can adapt and respond to its environment: “This holistic field of view will provide the feedback to help improve the capabilities of the vehicle and allow it to become truly autonomous in all environments and weather conditions.”

This “surround see” capability is not only important for navigating the vehicle safely down the road in front of it but for avoiding trouble the driver may not see.

“In the past it was looking at a small, defined area in front of the car, the path of the car, now the sensors must open up more to the intersection,” explained Christian Schumacher, head of ADAS business unit, NAFTA, at Continental.

“Instead of 25 degrees protecting the path of the car, it has to open up to 180 degrees as there may be pedestrians or motorcycles or anything entering so you need a very broad view. Globally, we see OEMs facing more challenging scenarios for safety features where objects could come from the side.”

Schumacher said perfecting sensing for distance on one side of the car and for a wide field of view on another remains the biggest challenge.

While there’s no agreement among carmakers as to what kinds of technology will prevail to reach fully automated overtaking, suppliers are working with a variety of approaches including radar, cameras, lasers, and LiDar to create a 360 degree surround view. Industry insiders say a combination of some or all of these technologies will likely be employed.

And, of course, this technology is on the way to market in luxury models, although it’s unclear how long it could take to reach mass market.

Affordability remains a major roadblock, which is why the tech is debuting on the high-end where the uptake rates are expected to be higher for additional paid features or where this kind of feature can be better absorbed by a carmaker’s higher profit margins.

Suppliers also note modifications to vehicles will be needed, creating an added cost, for adding the feature to vehicles. Application fusion and a number of redundancies will also be needed in this move from assisted driving to automated piloting, including steering, braking, and internal communications. And since there is no industry standard, vehicle manufacturers must find a way to integrate various systems created by different suppliers.

Carlson, the IHS Automotive analyst, said: “It’s about bringing the systems together and forming a central decision maker, integrating information, an element of how to provide that to the driver.”

Initially, the passing function will be triggered by the driver, who will remain in the loop to approve the move, with the ultimate goal of removing the human from the equation.

Even when the overtaking function is road-ready, there remains a big issue: is there enough demand to fuel mass adoption and stay the course for full automation? It’s unclear how long it may take to build interest beyond early adopters and luxury option buyers (see Hands up for who’s up for hands off?)

Kay Stepper, vice-president, driver assistance and automated driving chassis systems control at Robert Bosch, said the public, and lawmakers, remain ambivalent about piloted cars at the moment. “Bosch studies show consumers are split 50/50,” he said, adding,” it’s the same in the US and Europe. There’s a lot of work for the industry and society to do, to talk about the benefits of piloted cars instead of humans driving. And then there’s the aspect of public policy which isn’t developed” (see In law Tomorrowland’s another day – Part I).

Stepper said this will change over time as the safety benefits are trumpeted and consumer awareness is raised, much like earlier features that Bosch pioneered such as air bags, anti-lock brakes, and electronic stability control.

Continental’s Schumacher added: “Many people see safety features as insurance and they don’t want to pay for insurance. They think they don’t need it but if the feature saves their life they’ll always get it again.”

Different geographies may pose unique challenges. Consider the underdeveloped transportation infrastructure in many parts of the world such as China, India, Brazil, etc.

Lochbridge’s Chekuri said: “The envelope of safety around a car in India shrinks drastically when compared with the corresponding envelope in the US. The heterogeneous traffic users, lack of lane discipline, partial adherence to traffic rules all make the conditions for driving significantly challenging for autonomous cars. So there are significant differences that need to be overcome to have autonomous capabilities operate seamlessly across the world.”

Even the developed world offers disparate challenges and different use cases. IHS Analyst Carlson noted there are two approaches to tailoring the automated field of view application: “One is the blind spot plus rear cross-traffic alert [backing up and for driving], the other is blind spot and lane change that looks at fast approaching traffic, with a longer range, and more narrow field. The second approach is more popular in Europe, for autobahn-style, higher speed driving. Here in America, there are a lot of parking lots, people are backing up more.”

And of course in the US there’s the perplexing propensity for slower drivers to remain in the passing lane, encouraging motorists to pass on the right-hand side, a situation you see far less frequently in Europe.

Perhaps the promise of autonomous driving returning slower traffic to the right-hand lane will be a strong selling point to the American public.

Is the industry still on track to meet the unofficial 2020 launch of self-driving cars? Bosch’s Stepper agreed saying: “On the tech side, there are no concerns we’ll get there. The consumer demand and public policy and legal framework will allow us, or prohibit us from reaching that goal.”

For now analysts and industry insiders are watching the progress towards so-called vehicle “envisionment” and public reception of the next incremental steps towards more awareness coming from the BMW seven series, Mercedes E-Class and Tesla Model S.

After all, before the auto market can reach its final destination of self-piloted cars, Continental’s Schumacher said the improved field of view sensing is definitely the next step: “I strongly believe if you look at automated driving, this is the backbone. You need sensing and from sensing, you need control of the car.”

Don't miss Active Safety: ADAS to Autonomous this October 12-13.