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New cars to drive themselves

2006-10-02 18:20
Johannesburg - A number of the world's motor manufacturers, including Volkswagen/Audi, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus are developing concept cars that virtually drive themselves and are particularly adept at avoiding collisions.

It is likely that some of these advanced technologies will be on show in concept cars - or even the latest production cars - at the Auto Africa motor show, to be held in Johannesburg from October 26 - November 5.

Volkswagen has built a Golf that can steer itself around a course at racing speeds. However, it can only drive itself around a circuit it has learned already, using sensors on the bonnet to look for solid objects on the left and right - in this case traffic cones.

Once the Golf has completed a lap of the circuit the input from the scanners is run through computer software to work out the best line around the circuit and the best speed. Any human being who drives faster stands a good chance of skidding off course and scattering the cones,

The "drive itself:" Golf is not a novelty, but a product development tool, due to its consistency in speed and behaviour on a given circuit, as driver error is no longer a factory.

Stanford University, in the United States, used a Volkswagen Touareg to compete "driverless" in the US Defence Department's Advanced Research Project Agency Grand Challenge, where 20 cars raced 280 km through the Mojave Desert over an obstacle-strewn route. The Touareg used laser and radar scanners throughout the seven hours it took to complete the route, dodging boulders and abandoned cars.

The lessons learned from these types of activities help Volkswagen and other automotive companies integrate driver aids such as anti-skid, traction control and vehicle stability control to develop safer cars for the consumer.

Mercedes-Benz, one of the long-time leaders in the development of advanced safety technologies, pursues the concept of integrated safety: accidents should be prevented by using active safety systems to assist drivers. At the same time, passive safety systems help ensure that vehicles are well equipped to protect the occupants if a collision should nonetheless occur.

The history of Mercedes-Benz's active vehicle safety development began in 1978 with the launch of anti-lock braking (ABS), followed by electronic stability control, brake assist, the DISTRONIC cruise control system that maintains a preset distance to the vehicle in front and in 2004 the cornering light system was unveiled.

The company's latest PRE-SAFE system integrates both active and passive safety systems into a seven-step safety concept rigorously pursued by the Mercedes-Benz research and development engineers. The use of these advanced safety systems are also being used on the company's trucks.

BMW's Active Cruise Control with Stop and Go (ACCSG) is a radar-based support system that assists the driver when pulling off and applying the brakes in a slow convoy of vehicles, while maintaining an appropriate distance from the vehicle ahead, relieving the driver of a routine chore and allowing more concentration on the process of steering. This system is expected to enter production shortly.

As soon as the distance from the vehicle in front drops below a certain point the control system intervenes in the engine management system and slows down the car without any action on the part of the driver.

Another system under consideration uses the car's satellite navigation system to inform the driver of upcoming bends on the Head-up Display. This enables the driver to judge in advance where it is not advisable to overtake other vehicles on account of say, bends and unclear points, along the road.

The Lexus LS460, which will make its South African debut at Auto Africa, bristles with technological innovations. It anticipates and reacts automatically to a wide range of collision risk scenarios, recognising when a crash is imminent, helps the driver take action to prevent the collision occurring and if the worst happens its systems reduce the risk of injury.

The LS460 also has what Lexus says is the first driver monitoring system to warn of dangers ahead if the driver takes his or her eyes off the road. If the system "sees" something in the road it activates a warning light and buzzer. If the driver does not react quickly the system briefly applies brakes to get the driver's attention.

If that doesn't get a response then the pre-crash safety system engages emergency braking preparation and engages the front seat belt pre-tensioners.

However, not all these safety systems are available in all world markets, due to differing local vehicles regulations.


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