Important Barriers Still Exist to Autonomous Driving

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We’ve been dreaming about giving up the act of driving for decades it seems. The futuristic promise of sitting in the car while it drives itself has been an alluring one for most of us who have spent hours on the roads of this country.

The Promise of AV Technology

The promise of autonomous driving vehicles is getting closer to coming true though. The cars and the software that drives them have advanced in capability significantly over the last decade. Many manufacturers now offer at least some level of hands-free driving. Whether that is ‘hands-free parking’ or fully self-driving cars, the technology is creeping into our day-to-day lives.

Once the domain of only very expensive cars, Ford announced its BlueCruise hands-free highway driving system is coming to the highways in Canada and the U.S. Globally, Honda, GM and others are moving ahead with AVs operating by 2030.

In Canada Ford announced:

BlueCruise, the evolution of Ford Co-Pilot360 Technology

Using both advanced camera and radar-sensing technologies and building upon Intelligent Adaptive Cruise Control with Stop-and-Go, Lane Centering and Speed Sign Recognition, BlueCruise adds a new level of convenience for drivers with vehicles equipped with Ford Co-Pilot360 Technology. The feature allows a driver to operate truly hands-free on prequalified sections of divided highways called Hands-Free Blue Zones. A driver-facing camera in the instrument cluster monitors eye gaze and head position to help ensure the driver’s eyes remain on the road.

Currently, more than 100,000 miles of highways across North America have dedicated Hands-Free Blue Zones in the Ford GPS mapping system. BlueCruise uses blue lighting on the digital instrument cluster to indicate when the vehicle is in a hands-free zone.

In addition to the full hands-free mode, equipped vehicles will also feature Lane Centering mode. Lane Centering works on most roads with lane lines and can help keep the vehicle centred in its lane but requires drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel. In either mode, a visual prompt on the instrument cluster notifies drivers when they need to return their attention to the road or resume control of the vehicle.

BlueCruise is an SAE Level 2 driver-assist technology, similar to Tesla Autopilot but with the advantage of offering a true hands-free driving experience while in Hands-Free Mode that does not require a driver’s hands to stay in contact with the steering wheel unless prompted by vehicle alerts.

And unlike other approaches – such as GM’s Super Cruise, which uses red and green lighting, or Tesla’s Autopilot, which requires a driver to keep their hands on the steering wheel – BlueCruise communicates with drivers in different ways. The instrument cluster transitions to communicate that the feature is in Hands-Free mode through text and blue lighting cues, effective even for those with colour blindness.

More highways and features to come

Beyond the 2021 F-150 and 2021 Mustang Mach-E, additional Ford vehicles will also receive BlueCruise hands-free driving technology, while current owners continue to receive over-the-air software updates to add new features and capabilities in the coming years.

Future enhancements are planned to include Lane Change Assist that will let the vehicle change lanes with just a tap of the turn signal indicator, and Predictive Speed Assist that will adjust vehicle speed for road curves, roundabouts and more.

Ford also plans to offer regular mapping updates for the technology to recognize changes plus thousands of miles of planned new road additions.

In terms of commercial fleets, Canadian companies like Loblaws and Canadian Tire are reported to be experimenting with self-driving fleets.

What’s Holding AV back?

The advancement of AV use has been hampered by several factors including:

  • Safety – many safety checkpoints have yet to be met. Interpretation of weather, impaired driving and distracted driving remain issues for the AI technology
  • Regulatory – who is responsible for accident benefits and damages? The ‘driver’, the manufacturer of the vehicle? The designer o the AI tech powering the vehicle?
  • Education of current drivers – how to drive with AV and around AV vehicles
  • Who and How can AV be overridden in the case of an emergency?

Other questions that have not been closely examined include who is programming the ‘value’ decisions into AI and is that process transparent? For example, if the choice is to hit a bus full of school children loading at the side of the road, or an old person crossing the road, or a telephone pole, then what is the programmed outcome? Who has determined which lives are more valuable and why?

It appears that Level 5 driverless technology – completely autonomous self-driving vehicles - are still a concept at the moment, representing the goal that manufacturers are working towards.

image courtesy of Ford Media Center