Barreling down a Michigan highway, I'm riding shotgun with Ibro Muharemovic behind the wheel. There's a semi on one side of us and a silver Jeep Grand Cherokee up ahead. I've just met Muharemovic, and it dawns on me at 65 mph that I have no idea whether he's a good driver or an accident waiting to happen.
Then I shake my head at my silliness. It doesn't matter whether he can drive. The car's doing all the work.
We're in Muharemovic's baby, a black-on-black Volkswagen Passat his employer outfitted with a plethora of cameras, computers, radars, infrared sensors, pitch and yaw sensors, motion sensors, servo motors and the like to turn it into an autonomous vehicle.
Muharemovic works for the German international tire and automotive components supply giant Continental AG, where he is technical project manager for Continental's automatic driving program. In the past year or so he's logged more than 16,000 miles of mainly hands-free and foot-free driving in Continental's prototype. It's been accident-free, too, he lets me know.
Continental's controls haven't been limited to its own test cars. The company supplied many of the pieces used by Google in its ongoing driverless-car program. It also is partnering with BMW on autonomous vehicle development.
Humans Still Needed
Our Passat, which has its badges blacked out because the project has no connection with Volkswagen, isn't fully automatic. A human driver still has to take it out of its parking space and put it onto the road. The human must remain in the driver seat, and once the car's technology starts working its magic, he or she has to pay attention to the road and the instrument-panel readouts. Full autonomy is still a bit down the road.
But after planting us firmly on the freeway near Continental's U.S. headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan, Muharemovic flicks the cruise-control lever forward, triggering the automatic drive system.
Several icons on the specially designed center stack display light up. A large image appears showing the car, the lane we're in, and the traffic ahead and alongside of us. Radar beams radiate from the front and sides of the car icon, indicating that all systems are operating and searching the road for obstacles, lane markers and traffic that must be dealt with.
A smaller screen inset at the top left side of the display shows the camera's view of the same scene. The illuminated illustration is easier to see and understand, though, so that's what we watch.
The Car Takes Over
Muharemovic places his hands on his knees, firmly sets his feet on the floor alongside the pedals and over the next few miles of this short demonstration explains in layman's terms how it all works.
The car uses its stock electronic power steering and brake systems. But it's augmented with Continental's lane detection and centering system, traffic sign detection and identification program, steering control sensors and actuators and adaptive cruise control. That system brakes the car to slow down and even to come to a full stop, if necessary, to avoid running into the vehicle ahead.
A stereoscopic camera mounted high up on the windshield frame helps keep watch and identify cars, pedestrians, traffic signals and signs, and even lane markers up ahead. Cameras on the sides of the car keep track of lane markers and keep the car centered in its lane. Indeed, it negotiates curves just as if Muharemovic were handling the steering wheel himself.
When a car on the left of us gets a little too close, the sensors activate a servo motor that gently but quickly steers us out of the center of the lane and a bit to the right to make sure we don't get sideswiped. When the traffic in front slows, so does our car. It speeds up when the cars ahead speed up.
At one point, a camera car working with us signals for Muharemovic to pull up alongside on the right. Our car refuses, slowing down each time it gets too close to the camera car's right rear bumper. "Oops," Muharemovic says with a laugh. It turns out that he forgot to disable a system that's required in Germany to prevent the car from passing on the right.
When Muharemovic wants to change lanes, he flips on the turn signal to disengage the automatic controls, crosses the lane and removes his hands from the wheel once again as the car automatically centers itself and forges ahead.
Traffic Jams Made Easy
Pulling off the highway, Muharemovic finds a crowded commercial street and shows off Continental's traffic-jam assist system. The same array of sensors, guided by different software, now lets the car follow the vehicle in front of it. At low speeds our car goes wherever the lead car goes, crossing lanes, slowing, speeding up, stopping and starting as the tightly packed traffic conditions demand.
An early version of the system still requiring the driver's hands on the wheel will show up later this year on the European 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, but it's not headed to the U.S. — yet.
All too soon, the test ride is over and I realize that except for a few moments after Muharemovic first removed his hands from the steering wheel, I've been perfectly at ease riding along at freeway speed on an actual freeway, not a protected test track, in a car that's driving itself.
Red Plate Special
Muharemovic, of course, is an old hand at this. He's spent thousands of miles on Nevada roads in this car, which has a special, bright-red "autonomous vehicle" license plate. It's the first one Nevada issued to an automotive supply company.
No state or federal laws specifically prohibit self-driving vehicles, and Muharemovic has "driven" Continental's prototype from Nevada to Michigan. But Nevada was the first state to explicitly approve self-driven car testing on public roads. It requires (among other things) a real human being to sit in the driver seat and be ready to take back control at a moment's notice. California and Florida have since approved similar testing regulations, and other states are lining up.
The Fast-Arriving Future
Continental says the first production-model self-driving cars likely will hit the roads around 2016. Their autonomous functions will be limited to low-speed situations like traffic jams and crowded stop-and-go city streets. By 2020, "automatic" cars, as Continental calls them, could be ready for highways. In both cases, a licensed driver would have to be in the driver seat monitoring things at all times.
But fully autonomous driving, with no monitoring required, could come as early as 2025 if the legal and insurance systems are ready for it by then, Continental executives say.
Proponents of self-driving cars point out that none of the companies working on them expect that these cars will make human-driven vehicles obsolete — at least not in the first half of this century.
Share the Drive
Autonomous driving is intended to relieve humans of the most humdrum and monotonous of driving tasks, such as daily commuting and negotiating traffic jams. This would, in theory, free them to use their time in the car more productively. Not coincidentally, self-driving cars also would eliminate the behind-the-wheel boredom and inattention that is at the root of most traffic accidents.
So while the car of the not-so-distant future might let you surf the Web or write e-mails while carting you down the freeway, don't fret. You'll still be able to turn off the technology and take back the wheel and accelerator when you want to whip along a curvy country road on a weekend outing.
All in all, not a bad system.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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