The following article is from today's NYT. I am posting it as a "for your
Robo-Cars Make Cruise Control So Last Century
By DANNY HAKIM
Published: April 4, 2004
ETROIT, April 3 - The modern car does not have to guess your weight. It
It watches how you drive and it can pull a Trump. Skid, and before you can
blink, you're fired - the car is driving for you, if only for a moment. Cars
today can decide when to brake, steer and can park themselves. They can even
In short, the back-seat driver now lives under the hood. And it does more
than just talk.
This is all technology on the road now, if not in a single country or car.
But industry engineers and executives view it as the start of a trend that
will play out over the next decade, in which automobiles become increasingly
in touch with their surroundings and able to act autonomously.
What brings drivers to the brink of the Jetsons age?
Diminishing returns from air bags and other devices that help people survive
crashes have led to a wave of new technology to help avoid accidents. Or, if
an on-board microprocessor judges a collision to be inevitable, the car puts
itself into a defensive crouch. Mercedes S-Class sedans will even start
shutting the sunroof and lifting reclined seats if a collision is deemed
This trend is made possible by the car's evolution from a mechanical device
to an increasingly computerized one, in which electronic impulses replace or
augment moving parts. That means microprocessors can take control of the
most basic driving functions, like steering and braking.
At the same time, there is a parallel evolution in sensory technology. Most
advanced safety systems are equipped with sensors that look inside the car,
tracking tire rotation, brake pressure and how rapidly a driver is turning
the steering wheel.
But next-generation sensors, including radar and hidden cameras, are looking
outside the car, giving it the ability to open its eyes, so to speak, to its
For instance, this year Toyota started selling its Lexus LS430 sedan with
radar tucked in the grille. If the car's computer processors sense a
collision is imminent, they will cinch up the seat belts, increase the
driver's braking pressure and in some cases alter the suspension, moving the
car closer to the ground.
On Wednesday, Nissan's Infiniti division said that it would embed a camera
on the rearview mirror of its 2005 FX sport utility vehicle. It is part of a
system that warns drivers if they drift from their lane, the first such
system in the United States. In Japan, Honda sells a similar system that
actually steers the car back into a lane if a driver does not heed a
Most whiz-bang technology begins in luxury cars, where owners more easily
absorb costs, but not always. For instance, the Ford Freestar minivan weighs
anyone who sits in the passenger seat with a flexible plastic scale in the
cushion. If a lightweight occupant like a small child is detected in the
front passenger seat, the minivan will deactivate the frontal air bag so
that it does not lead to an injury upon impact.
All of this increasing complexity has ramifications for quality, because
automobiles have more physical parts, and now also software, that can fail.
And it is among the reasons for rising numbers of vehicle recalls.
Automakers say potential safety benefits offset such concerns.
But where is all this heading - auto autopilot?
"There's a general trend towards the completely self-driving car," said
Csaba Csere, an engineer and the editor of Car and Driver magazine. He said
it had once been assumed that such cars would have to be guided by
technologies built into roads, an unfeasibly expensive proposition.
"Now we have cars with G.P.S.," he said, referring to global positioning
satellite systems. "Combine that with radar cruise control, add a
lane-changing system and throw in a transponder, or cameras, and pretty soon
you could have a car that self-drives itself in the middle of a bunch of
Many executives and researchers say they have no such end in mind.
Certainly, there are headaches to ponder. Like, what will lawyers do if
self-driving cars get in accidents?
"I think it would be very risky for an auto company to take its eye off of
the fun of driving, but where it can lead is to having a more enjoyable
driving experience and a safer one," said Larry Burns, G.M.'s research and
He drives a Cadillac XLR, a sports car that is among many new luxury
vehicles equipped with "adaptive" cruise control, which can slow a car
drastically if another swerves in its path. The next-generation technology,
expected within one to two years, will actually stop cars in traffic.
General Motors and other companies are also developing transponders that can
communicate with other cars to create on-board traffic-snarl warning
"This paints a world for us in the 5- to 10-year window where we will know
where everything is relative to everything else," Mr. Burns said.
Every major automaker now sells vehicles with electronic stability systems,
which apply brakes to individual wheels to stabilize the car when a driver
is losing control.
And BMW already offers an optional "active steering" system on its 5- and
6-series cars that can override the driver and steer out of trouble.
"With electric steering, you have the ability to put input into the steering
without the driver having to do anything," said William Kozyra, president of
Continental Teves North America, an auto supplier.
"We're talking about small amounts here, a couple degrees, which is all you
need," Mr. Kozyra said.
Japanese automakers have pushed the boundaries of these technologies
farthest in their home market, a society with an affinity for gadgetry.
Toyota recently introduced a car that parks itself.
Toyota and Honda have also entered the android-building business. Honda's
walking, waving, if-not-driving, robot, Asimo, rang the bell at the New York
Stock Exchange in 2002.
Which raises a chicken-egg question: What comes first, the car that drives
itself? Or the car-driving robot?
'71 Trans Am 455 H.O.
'77 Corvette coupe
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