A Preview of Self-Driving Cars and Future Car Technology

The Future of Driving Is Almost Here

To see the future of driving, it's smart to check in with the companies that develop the systems and components that will be in tomorrow's cars. "We know exactly what car manufacturers will be working on in the coming decade," says Elmar Degenhart, chairman of German automotive supply giant Continental AG.

The list includes numerous safety systems aimed at achieving an accident-free future. These, not coincidentally, are the building blocks for a new generation of self-driving cars that navigate the roads via a myriad of sensors, signals and electromechanical systems. Also on tap: more efficient tires and internal-combustion engines, a wide range of electric-drive systems, and vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, or "connected cars."

To show off some of the work it's doing, Continental recently opened its testing grounds just north of Hanover, Germany, to Edmunds and other automotive journalists for a technology showcase.

After seeing it all in action, it becomes easier to imagine a future where the ability to enjoy the morning commute with a cup of coffee and a digital newspaper won't be limited to bus and train riders. The technologies have the capacity to invert the current state of gas-guzzling, traffic-clogged, accident-plagued driving. With advanced systems in place, passenger vehicles will deliver better than 40 miles per gallon, avoid traffic jams and virtually never get into accidents.

That future isn't so very far away. Continental believes that semi-automated cars will be available by 2016. Fully automated vehicles will hit the roads as early as 2025. Indeed, Continental's own highly automated prototype already has racked up more than 16,000 miles of test-driving in the U.S. The company is the first industry supplier to be awarded an autonomous vehicle license plate by the state of Nevada.

Continental certainly isn't the only company deeply invested in future automotive technologies. But it is one of the largest components and systems developers and manufacturers on the globe. It is working closely with BMW on development of automated driving technologies, and has also provided a number of automakers including Mercedes-Benz with systems being used to develop automated traffic jam negotiating systems. An early version that still requires the driver to monitor things and keep her hands on the wheel will be available on the new 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Continental says the first of the fully automated systems will be in the market by 2016. The company won't say so, but Mercedes-Benz is a likely candidate for that system. A forward-looking, stereoscopic camera and traffic sign recognition software (two key items to Continental's traffic jam and self-driving system) debuts in the 2014 S-Class.

In addition to enhanced safety, the desire to increase fuel efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be the major controlling factors in passenger vehicle development for the next few decades at least, according to Continental.

The company's top managers are among those who believe that advanced automotive technologies, many of which are already on hand, can provide the necessary solutions.

Timetable for Self-Driving Technology
The first batch of self-driving "automatic" cars, as Continental prefers to call them, will start hitting the road in the 2015-'16 model years, says Alfred Eckert, Continental's top safety and chassis systems engineer.

The first cars out of the gate will be partially or semi-automated in low-speed situations such as traffic jams and stop-and-go urban driving. They will be able to stay in the lane the driver chooses, maintain a safe distance while following other vehicles and be able to react quickly to avoid potential rear-end collisions or side impacts from other vehicles.

But they still will require "drivers" to sit behind the wheel. (Perhaps "operators" or "pilots" will become the new word.) Whatever you call them, humans must be prepared to take control when it's time for a lane change, or when the semi-automated system's speed limit is exceeded or, in a worst-case scenario, if the automated controls fail.

By 2020, Continental expects to see the rollout of "highly automated" vehicles in which the electronic systems will take control in specific situations, such as driving on a highway, and won't require the driver to monitor things constantly. In this mode, you could read e-mails, send texts or have a long conversation with a passenger without having to concentrate on the road. The vehicle would give the operator a warning signal when it needed human intervention.

The final stage of fully automated driving could come as soon as 2025, Eckert says. That's when vehicles could be programmed to follow specific routes, such a daily commute, and would be capable of handling all conditions and situations that arise on the trip. In the early stages of this phase, a driver might still be required to sit behind the wheel, but would not need to monitor the vehicle or road conditions.

Ingredients for Self-Driving Vehicles
It will take highly complex software to control automated vehicles, and lots of people to develop it. Continental alone has upward of 10,000 people working on various types of control and connectivity software, according to the company. Some big changes also will be needed in the way we assign insurance and legal liability for system breakdowns that could lead to accidents or driving rule infractions such as speeding or illegal passing.

But most of the automated-car hardware is available now. So is much of the control logic. It can be found in the systems now used for enhanced driving safety and driver assistance, such as lane-keeping assist, active cruise control, electronic stability controls and rear-end collision avoidance systems. Indeed, engineers developing automated driving systems say the many available safety technologies are the core of autonomous vehicles.

On the mechanical side, Continental's highly automated prototype uses a variety of mono and stereo cameras, long- and short-range radar units, wireless communications systems, motion and position sensors, computers and complex software programs. All except the proprietary control logic software is commercially available today.

The trick is linking it all together.

Car Connectivity
The connected car isn't a requirement for automated driving, but it sure can help make things work smoothly. In addition, safety specialists very much want cars that not only wirelessly receive information and entertainment programming but also send data to other cars and to various traffic monitoring systems. The ability to do so, they say, will help speed the day when traffic jams and accidents are rarities rather than regular occurrences. Such systems could start appearing in high-end vehicles as early as 2016, says Ralf Lenninger, head of strategy and development in Continental's vehicle interiors division.

Continental engineers point out that most new cars already have a live data network installed and that it's a relatively easy technical task to extend connections to the cloud and use speedy LTE networks to transmit data.

The ultimate goal is to have vehicles that alert other vehicles to their presence, speed and direction of travel. They will also be able to report trouble that could affect other vehicles sharing the same roads, such as obstacles on the road or looming bad weather.

Additionally, vehicles could transmit that data to traffic-control centers, which could amalgamate it and make decisions regarding signal timing and speed limits, based on what all of the cars and trucks on the road are up to at any given time. The traffic-control centers could ease traffic jams by the proper staging of signals and speed limits and by sending rerouting instructions to cars about to enter crowded roadways.

In Continental's view, a fully connected car also will have other amenities. It would send diagnostic information to the dealership, and even receive software-based fixes remotely to avoid the need for a service call. The company has developed a heated, cooled and adjustable seat that can be controlled by on-seat buttons or via a tablet that will store the user's preferences for transfer and use with wireless-control equipped seats in other vehicles.

Electrification for Fuel Economy
In addition to cars that communicate and more or less drive themselves, Continental also sees a future in which almost every vehicle on the road uses some degree of electric assist, from simple 12-volt stop-start systems to fully electric drive systems. The key, says Jose Avila, head of Continental's powertrain division, is that no one is sure yet just what the right blend of technologies will be, so improvements to all must be pursued.

That means the internal-combustion engine isn't going away, but it also means that Continental is betting on growing acceptance of conventional hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and battery and fuel-cell electric vehicles.

The goal is not to force everyone into one type of electric vehicle but to provide a variety of vehicles with "electrification that's tailored to fit" a variety of needs, says Avila.

Continental sees fully electric cars remaining a relatively small niche but anticipates substantial growth between 2020 and 2025 in plug-in hybrids capable of up to 40 miles of all-electric driving before they revert to conventional gas-electric hybrid driving mode.

Electrification not only helps improve fuel efficiency and reduces emissions, Avila says. It makes it easier to integrate the driver assistance systems such as active cruise control and rear-end collision mitigation that are essential to automated driving.

Long Live the Internal-Combustion Engine
Still, the predominant powertrain for decades to come will be cleaner, more efficient internal-combustion engines, Avila says. These often will be augmented with 12-volt electric stop-start systems or even 48-volt micro hybrid systems that provide small bursts of electric assist for slow-speed creeping or when a short boost in power is needed.

Also key to improved efficiency and performance are direct injection, turbocharging, engine downsizing and continual improvements in combustion and exhaust systems. Drivers also can expect improved power transfer through electronically controlled, multispeed transmissions.

All these technologies will help the internal-combustion engine keep its place at the top of the powertrain pyramid, Avila says. They'll also get an important assist from other essential technologies such as vehicle weight reduction through increased use of high-strength alloys and plastics, improved electronic engine and fuel system controls, and low-rolling-resistance tires.

Bottom Line
What does it cost to create these future cars? Plenty. Continental, for example, is investing 100 million euros (about $134 million) in research and development this year. It all goes toward helping resolve what Eckert calls the "central challenges of future individual mobility."

If the major players in the auto industry achieve their goals, he says, "the streets will become safer, the flow of traffic will improve, fuel consumption will be lower and, above all, the driver will have more freedom and can better use the time in the car."

That's an automotive future to look forward to.

For some first-person impressions of what's coming, join us as Edmunds takes a ride in Continental's self-driving car.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.