Car prepares to drive itself 3,500 miles across U.S.
Are you ready to ride in a car with no driver? Experiments are being held now. One could even be called a preview of the cross-country road trip of the future.
Several manufacturers are developing the technology. That includes Delphi Automotive. It is based in Michigan. The company supplies parts to major automobile companies. Delphi's autonomous car will soon make a 3,500-mile journey. It plans to cross the country. A person will sit behind the wheel at all times. But that person won't touch it unless there's a situation the car can't handle.
Autonomous cars won't be without drivers. But they pretty much will make all driving decisions. If there is a problem, a driver can take over.
For the cross-country trip, the car will stick mainly to highways.
Several companies are experimenting with similar technologies. They take more and more responsibilities away from the driver. That includes right up to the act of actually driving the car. Most experts say a true driverless vehicle is at least 10 years away.
Delphi plans to show off one of several versions of the car. It is an Audi Q5 crossover. The experimental vehicle is outfitted with laser sensors. It has radar and multiple cameras. It will be at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. The official car will start its cross-country journey March 22 in San Francisco. It will head to New York. The car's arrival is expected a little more than a week later.
The autonomous Audi has been warming up for its long journey. It has racked up lots of miles. The car has been tooling around Delphi's office. That's in California's Silicon Valley. The car also took a drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Delphi showed off the car at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. During a demonstration, the car braked by itself, when two men fell into the street in front of it.
On the trip across America, Delphi's car will be driven for six to eight hours per day. It will be taken on various roadways and operated during different weather conditions. This will give Delphi engineers valuable data. With it, they can help improve the technology. Engineers will also look for ways to make drivers and passengers more comfortable with the idea of autonomous driving.
"We're going to learn a lot out of this," said Jeff Owens. He is Delphi's chief technology officer.
Delphi officials believe the upcoming road trip is the longest automated drive ever attempted in North America. In 2010, the Italian company VisLab took a driverless van on an 8,000-mile, three-month journey. It went from Europe to Shanghai, China.
Delphi's autonomous vehicle looks like a regular car and not a science project. Anyone who looks at driverless cars developed by Google, Honda and others, immediately notices the circular, spinning sensor on top. It scans the surrounding area with lasers. The technology is known as lidar. Instead, Delphi tucked six lidar sensors into the car's front, rear and sides. And because lidar sensors don't work well in heavy snow or rain, the car has six radar sensors that can also detect road obstacles. The car also has cameras throughout. One even watches the driver.
Delphi says the vehicle is capable of making complex decisions. For instance, it can stop and then go at a four-way stop. The car can time a merge onto the highway. Or it can maneuver around a bicyclist or a trash can. When it wants the driver to resume control, it uses a verbal warning. And lights flash on the dashboard.
Owens won't say how much its autonomous prototypes cost. But for now, this technology is expensive. Lidar systems can cost upward of $70,000 apiece.
Doug Welk is an engineer in the company's automated driving program. He said the cross-country drive will help Delphi figure out the best combination of sensors. The information ultimately will help to lower costs. Delphi estimates it will cost around $5,000 to make a vehicle almost fully autonomous by 2019.
Owens said Delphi has been working on automated driving since 1999. That's when it first started putting radar sensors on cars. Now, 2 million cars are outfitted with those sensors. They are used for adaptive cruise control, automatic braking and other features.
Fully autonomous driving could come over the next decade or two, Owens said. Driverless cars are even further away. But in the meantime, Delphi sees autonomous features as a way to drastically cut the number of traffic deaths worldwide. The car's features include pedestrian detection or vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems,
"This technology can make a serious impact on those statistics," Owens said. "The car is not distracted. Even if the driver is."
Critical thinking challenge: Why is it important to make drivers and passengers more comfortable with the idea of autonomous driving?