European automakers: driver assists and something more

From BMW to Volvo, car manufacturers of Europe are offering their customers the best-in-class safety features. But what of the elephant in the room – the fallible human driver?


Accelerate. Brake. Accelerate. Brake.


Be it New York, London, Mumbai or Shanghai, this is usually the start-stop world of automatic transmission when driving a car. Not to forget millions of others who deal with a clutch and gearbox.


“There is a section of the crowd that likes to drive, and wants to drive. That sounds great if you’re on the Pacific Coast highway [in California, USA] and you’ve got nice and curvy roads. But if you’re sitting in bumper to bumper traffic, wouldn’t you rather do something else and let the car take over?” says Jim Nichols, product and technology communications manager at Volvo USA.


European car makers are interested in exploring a new world of automotive freedom – one that consists of relaxed driving patterns and state-of-the-art interiors –  to offer a future generation of consumers the complete experience. In simpler terms, a car that allows a distracted driver to finish and hit send on a tweet as it prevents an accident and keeps other road users out of harm all on its own.


Most of these manufacturers – Continental, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo – have been part of the automotive industry for almost a century now, some more than others. Their innovations have been integral to advancements in the field. Last year, they had a combined revenue of 201bn euros (£142bn).


It's all in the car


For decades, car safety has been at the forefront of automotive development. No other company than Volvo is as obsessed with being a pioneer in that arena.


In 1959, the company delivered the first three-point seat belt in a production vehicle, or as people call it today – the seat belt. Nine years later, they introduced head restraints for the front seats to protect the neck and the head in rear-end collisions. From topping charts prepared by Euro NCAP – the new car safety assessment programme for Europe – to rolling out a collision warning with auto brake feature in 2007, Volvo have continued their pursuit into the next century.


Their new ambition would be the pinnacle of that dream. “The vision for Volvo is what we call Vision 2020: that no one should be killed or seriously injured in a Volvo by the year 2020,” says Nichols.


From air bags to anti-lock braking systems, safety features – for as long as one can imagine – has been passive or reactive in nature. But newer technologies, some existing and others in progress, are crossing the divide. Nichols labels them “semi-AD features”, AD being autonomous driving. “I use adaptive cruise control (ACC) everyday, I never touch the pedals. You set a limit – for example 65mph – and the car automatically adapts to the speed of traffic, based on the car in front of you,” he says.


They are actively assisting the driver in more ways than one, be it the monotony of driving into the city or sleepiness after a long day at the wheel. The new Volvo XC90 is leading proof of what a mix of everything can provide. “We now have ACC with pilot assist where it will not only follow the speed of the vehicle in front of you but also steer, up to speeds of 40mph,” he adds.


The Volvo XC90 spots people in the dark and brakes itselfThen there’s runoff protection that helps drivers stay on the road. First, it warns the driver audibly. If no corrections are made, it vibrates the steering wheel to get their attention. Failing that, the car will attempt to steer itself back onto the road. “But if it can’t act against the slope of the road or if there is a force preventing it from doing so, it will take other necessary steps. Through fitted cameras and gyroscope, it will take readings and prepare the passengers for impact –  tension the seatbelts and so on,” notes Nichols.


For Volvo, it’s not just about the safety of the people inside the vehicle. The XC90 has a “pedestrian detection” mode that spots people in the dark and brakes on its own, up to speeds of 30mph. BMW’s new 7 series – announced last month and available in the fall – provides more of the same albeit with different naming courtesy of the marketing division.


Runoff protection becomes lane departure warning, pilot assist is called traffic jam assistant and it has a pedestrian warning system as well. On top of that, the side collision protection system helps with changing the lane. Its cameras detect any preceding and approaching vehicles and inform the driver when it’s okay to move.

Dr Werner Huber is head of driver assistance at BMW’s research and technology division. He’s been part of the Bavarian outfit since 1996 and is the leading guy behind the company’s development of highly automated driving, in what manufacturers see as the penultimate step to a possible robot takeover of another human activity.


He points out that the new BMW 7 series is only capable of partly automated driving, and not autonomous driving. “It combines lateral and longitudinal control. That means combination of adaptive cruise control and lane control. But they are just support functions, up to high velocities such as 210kph (130mph),” he says.


Continental AG, known world over for its tyres, is also invested in driving the future. Apart from the mainstream repertoire of driver assists, the company has seen development of vehicle-to-x (V2X) communication systems that allow exchange of information between the vehicle and any object of the driven environment that affects the car.


But in terms of their approach, Continental is singing the same tune as their German counterparts. “We are not pursuing autonomous driving as the primary goal of our development. Our aim is an automated vehicle that can handle driving tasks if the user wants to transfer control. We believe in the future cars will be just like today but with an additional chauffeur's button, so to speak,” says Enno Pigge, spokesman for innovation and technology at Continental.


“Software is the new wheel of the industry”The shift


How different tomorrow’s cars will be remains to be seen. While manufacturers may have access to most of the same technology across the board, the host of innovations have been a part of a shifting trend for the automotive industry as a whole. Masterful engineering drove automotive development for a large part of the 20th century. In 1978, the Cadillac Seville was the first production car to feature a microprocessor and it led to a technical revolution. But a new kind of revolution has been brewing for the last 15 years.


“On average, a modern car has 90 control units. And all these units need highly sophisticated software to work and do what they should. Software is the new wheel of the industry,” says Pigge.


Google, the internet search giant, probably understands this better than none other. The California-based company started road trials with modified versions of existing cars back in 2009. Last year, it announced a new concept built from scratch and has come to be synonymous with autonomous car development. Without the restraints of being an existing automaker, Google has embraced disruptive innovation and the drove of critics with pitchforks at its heel.


“Google is developing a new mobility concept for mega-cities and the outskirts based on a low-level car. It’s not a car, it’s a computer with four wheels that can drive up to 40kph (20mph). We really appreciate their approach and I think it’s necessary to work in that direction. But I don’t believe that those cars will be in real-world operation by 2020,” says Dr Huber.


Traditional automakers – if they may be termed so for this purpose – are instead putting their manpower and money into an evolutional model: a philosophy that balances integration of new tech in next generation of cars based off public perception, a business-oriented approach and existing legislative framework.


Some cite Google’s limited approach. “We [at BMW] have to fulfil a lot of requirements in our development when you’re trying to build a car that can do 250kph (155mph),” notes Dr Huber.


Others value the vast amount of experience and knowledge they possess. “Since the 1970s, we have dispatched a Volvo team to study every accident within a certain mile radius of our facility in Gothenburg. We have decades of real world accident data; and we have crunched the numbers to identify what are the most common elements and build technology to help prevent accidents,” Nichols comments.

Back from the future


In the midst of all this, Peter Lehmann and Mercedes-Benz have spent the last three years rethinking inside the box, literally. Lehmann is the chief engineer behind the company’s head-turning showing at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year, the Mercedes-Benz F 015 (pronounced f-o-fifteen).


“The main intent of the F 015 wasn’t to prove that we can do autonomous driving. That had already been proved by the Bertha Benz drive two years ago. So the idea was to show freedom in the interior,” he says.


The Bertha Benz drive is an iconic memory for automobile enthusiasts, more so for everyone at the company. In August 1886, Bertha Benz without informing her husband Karl Benz, took his invention – the three-wheeled Patent Motorwagen – and drove her two sons from Mannheim to Pforzheim, a distance of 106 kilometres (66 miles). In doing so, she became the first person to complete a long-distance trip in an automobile and led the way for a horseless carriage revolution.


Fast forward to August 2013 – a full 125 years later – when Mercedes-Benz outfitted an S-Class with autonomous capability and retraced Fräulein Benz’s steps.


Lehmann says: “With the F 015, the aim was to present the autonomous luxury sedan of the future. It’s revolutionary in its concept and transforms the car into a retreat. It provides passengers with a digital experience tailored on their needs and make most of their time on the road. This is a future scenario – we like to call it Vision 2030+.”


“The idea was to make the car your home”The F 015 is not a prototype or concept version of a production car, it serves only as inspiration for vehicles of the future. “We call it a research car, to show all the innovation we have and to show the interaction between all the innovation. The idea was to show the future purpose of a car when you no longer have the need to drive and could immerse yourself in something else. The idea was to make the car your home,” he adds.


In turn, the car itself seems to have inspired by space capsules right out of science-fiction. Lehmann likens the design to a Lamborghini and elaborates on how they managed spacious interiors: “We chose a very innovative propulsion system with fuel-cell concept and electric drive. The rear axle is totally towards the end of the car which gave us a wheelbase of 360 cm,” he says.


The F 015 is close to the same length as an S-Class – about 520 cm – but has a markedly longer wheelbase. “With such a huge wheelbase, we were able to create a living room inside the car,” notes Lehmann. This “living room” features flat screens on the side doors, revolving chairs and a 360° view.


At Daimler since 1995, Lehmann took up his current role in 2003. His first project was the company’s previous research vehicle – the F 700 – and it was unveiled to the public at the 2008 Frankfurt Motor Show. Elements of the F 700 have trickled down into Mercedes-Benz’s production offerings over the years, most notably of which is the reactive suspension system introduced in the 2013 S-Class. Dubbed the “magic carpet”, laser sensors fitted into the headlights scan the road surface ahead and adjust the suspension for the smoothest possible ride.


The S-Class has always led the way in the automobile industry in terms of features offered to customers, and Lehmann hopes the F 015 – this pinnacle of technology – will help continue that legacy for Mercedes-Benz.


What is then the future for these cars? Lehmann thinks the topic of affordability is a good point to discuss and says: “When we were with F 015 in San Francisco [in USA], we had one day reserved for the representatives of US government. They were really interested in not just driving the car but also to discuss what the next step is.”


A long road lies ahead for autonomous vehicles, least of which are the shortcomings of the technology itself.



Part III – Now what? Problems and the bigger picture

Note: The next article picks up right where this one leaves

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