Mainstream Automakers Test the Waters of Self-Driving Vehicles
Image: Tesla

Mainstream Automakers Test the Waters of Self-Driving Vehicles

General Motors and Audi plan to roll out features similar to Tesla with a few crucial differences

September 2, 2016

Mainstream automakers are ready to deploy their answers to Tesla's Autopilot. Will they be the PCs to Tesla's Apple?

A Matter of Trust

The next Cadillac sedan to be released by General Motors (GM) will come with a feature known as SuperCruise, which will be capable of steering the car for long periods of driving on the highway, passing other vehicles, braking in traffic, speeding up, and making lane changes without much effort from the driver.

The difference between SuperCruise and Autopilot is that the former will force the driver to pay attention. GM is installing a camera in the Cadillac, close to the rearview mirror, that will monitor what the driver does—and what he or she doesn't do.

Like other major car manufacturers testing the waters of autonomous vehicles, GM does not assume that a human driver will—or can be trusted to—stay engaged in actively operating the vehicle.

By including this feature, the companies are trying to avoid the criticism that has fallen on Tesla, accusing Autopilot of lulling the driver into a false sense of security so that he or she ceases to pay attention to the road.

"Through the driver's eyes, you can detect his or her level of attention," says Mark Reuss, GM's executive vice president for global product development.

The monitoring system to be installed in Cadillacs will analyze pictures of the eyes and head of the driver to ensure he or she is looking forward. It will notice if the driver becomes drowsy, looks away from the windshield at a cell phone or other device, or turns to reach or look behind them. If the driver does not resume facing forward within a few seconds, the car will sound warning tones and flash lights, and if the driver still does not respond, SuperCruise will be able to either slow or even stop the car.

German luxury automaker Audi is also throwing a hat into the ring. It will offer an upgraded version of its driver-assistance technology in the 2018 A8 sedan, and it is planning to integrate a similar method of driver monitoring into that technology.

"The car will see the driver's condition and be able to say, 'O.K., you're paying attention and alert,' and then it can be engaged," said Brad Stertz, director of government affairs at Audi.

In an additional effort to protect drivers—and pedestrians—the self-driving features on the Cadillac and the A8 will not work except on divided highways with curves and exits that have been plotted on digital maps. This will allow the vehicle to track its location on the road and on the terrain around it, as the systems will also be able to recognize objects such as road signs and overpasses.

The features will not work outside the digitally mapped areas, such as on long, winding roads in the country or on unmapped city streets. This is to prevent the kind of accidents that have drawn heavy criticism to Tesla over the past several months.

A man behind the wheel of a Tesla Model S was killed in May in a collision with a tractor-trailer crossing a highway. The Autopilot feature was on and did not recognize the white truck against the backdrop of a bright sky, and neither it nor the driver braked to avoid the collision. Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is conducting an investigation to determine if there are flaws in Autopilot, Tesla claims that the collision was due at least in part to operator error.

Technological Problems and Philosophical Differences

There are many critics of self-driving technologies. There will undoubtedly be people who question how driver and passenger privacy will be affected by having a camera monitoring movement and behavior in the vehicle. Another issue the critics cite is known as the "handoff problem." According to them, it has been shown in too many experiments that humans sitting behind the wheel when a car seems to be driving itself just cannot react fast enough to switch over to driving manually when something unexpected happens and the autonomous technology cannot handle it.

It is for this reason that both Ford and Google have decided to skip driver-assistance systems altogether and instead work on future vehicles that will be fully autonomous and will not require human action.

"It's very difficult to have proper driver engagement," says Ford Chief Technical Officer Raj Nair.

Tesla, however, intends to continue with the Autopilot feature and work on improving it. This decision illustrates a clear difference between it and the bigger traditional manufacturers, says The New York Times (NYT).

"Established automakers take a more conservative view of new technology and tend to have their own engineers refine and test it until it works as intended," the newspaper states. "The companies also typically hold clinics where they watch customers try new technologies to make sure it is easy to use and to discover how some might misuse it."

In contrast, given how quickly Tesla was able to get the Autopilot feature up and running, customers did not necessarily have the time to properly test it and really learn how it works. Although the company warns drivers that the feature is not intended to be completely autonomous, and the vehicle dashboard, when the feature is operating, uses visual and audio alerts to remind drivers to pay attention and keep their hands on the wheel, there are many YouTube videos created by drivers that show them not looking at the road or holding the wheel for several minutes at a time.

Mercedes-Benz has just introduced a feature in its new 2017 E-Class sedan that is similar to Autopilot. However, Drive Pilot, as the feature is called, makes drivers keep their hands on the wheel more often. It may allow hands-free driving for up to a minute on an open highway, says Bart Herring, the general manager of product management at Mercedes-Benz USA, but it will set off alarms after a few seconds if a driver tries it in traffic.

"We love big leaps, but we don't make those until they're ready for prime time," Herring said.

And Audi's system will be even more restrictive. Intended to provide relief for the driver in stop-and-go traffic, it should work only up to a speed of 35 miles per hour. It will not work at highway speeds until the next version is released, which is expected to happen by 2020 or 2021.

Both it and GM's SuperCruise system also rely on radar sensors, cameras, and a technology known as "lidar"—a laser-based type of radar—to "look at" the road and tell where other vehicles and pedestrians are located.

According to Elon Musk, CEO at Tesla, the company believes that lidar is not necessary for a system like Autopilot that is meant to assist drivers. And although many experts believe that lidar identifies objects better than radar, Tesla spokeswoman Alexis Georgeson says that the technology is more expensive and does not possess the same range to identify objects in front of the vehicle that radar does.

Better Safe Than Sorry

Meanwhile, other traditional auto manufacturers are being much warier when it comes to self-driving technologies. For instance, Honda and Toyota only offer systems that include radar, cameras, and automatic braking meant to mitigate or altogether prevent accidents, and they have steering capabilities that are intended to prevent their vehicles from drifting into another lane. But that's as far as those companies are willing to go into the ocean of autonomous vehicles for now.

"We have to be clear about the technology's limitations," said Jim Keller, one of the chief engineers at Honda R&D Americas. "Customers will find situations where the system won't work as they think it will, and there will be consequences."