Relax, let the car do the driving


Published: Friday, September 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.

Facts

AT A GLANCE: Driving for dummies

  • BMW AG, DaimlerChrysler AG and Toyota Motor Corp. are among the makers of premium models that are starting to market cars that automate many parts of the driving experience.
  • Mercedes-Benz has introduced a short-range radar system designed to prevent rear-end collisions in stop-and-go traffic by keeping the car at a set distance behind the vehicle in front of it, braking and accelerating as traffic does.

  • If you think driving is a drag and parking even more so, take heart: Automakers are coming up with ways to shift a lot of the work from the driver to the car.
    BMW AG, DaimlerChrysler AG and Toyota Motor Corp. are among the makers of premium models that are starting to market cars that automate many parts of the driving experience: self-parking cars (with the driver inside or outside the vehicle); parking guidance systems (for the less-lazy driver); enhanced cruise-control systems that work in stop-and-go-traffic and maintain a safe distance between cars; and warning systems that tell you when you've strayed from your lane.
    Whether people who like to drive high-performance, high-priced cars will want to relinquish driving tasks to their machines remains to be seen, since most of the new automated features aren't available yet, at least in the U.S. Joe Hammell, a 45-year-old sales director for a software firm and BMW driver in Atlanta, says he favors performance-related options - like sportier suspensions. "My tedium is more with drivers who aren't trained very well," he says.
    And while a self-parking car may inflict only dings or dents on itself, technologies that allow cars to drive themselves at high speeds could raise safety concerns.
    Indeed, liability fears are one reason the industry has proceeded cautiously on introducing driver-assistance systems, though much of the basic technology has been available for years, says Stephen Cheetham, an auto-industry analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein Ltd. in London.
    Echoing other industry officials, Burkhard Goeschel, a member of BMW's management board with responsibility for research and development, says the aim isn't to take the driver out of driving. Electronic systems, he says, can't handle every conceivable task, such as deciding whether to cross a stop line at a red light to make way for an ambulance.
    Consider BMW's new Remote Park Assist feature. The system allows a driver to stand outside the car and guide the vehicle into a parking spot using a button on a control key that communicates with ultrasound sensors mounted in the bumpers. To avoid mishaps, the car stops immediately if the driver lets go of the button.
    Among other recent innovations at the German auto maker: a windshield-mounted camera that "reads" speed-limit signs and displays the posted limit on the dashboard, and a satellite-based "road preview" feature that looks for curves in the road ahead and advises drivers on whether it's a good time to pass another vehicle. BMW officials won't say when they plan to introduce some of their latest innovations, such as the Remote Park Assist function, or how much they will cost.
    In October, Toyota's Lexus plans to start selling in the U.S. its new 2007 Lexus LS 460 and LS 460 L, equipped with what the company calls an Advanced Parking Guidance System. This will allow drivers to pull up to a parking spot, push a button, and let the car take it from there: The system will park the car using a backup camera, an electric power steering system and parking sonar sensors (the driver just needs to control speed with a little braking).
    In a similar vein, a new parking guidance feature available on the 2007 Mercedes-Benz S-Class models displays a camera image of a parking spot on the dashboard screen with colored lines superimposed on it, just as drivers shift into reverse. The red, yellow and blue lines help to direct drivers into a spot. Nissan Motor Co. offers a similar technology.
    Beyond parking, auto makers are also moving toward producing cars that function more like jets on autopilot. Their efforts come in response to growing evidence that so-called adaptive cruise-control systems, which allow for stopping and starting, do a better job of managing traffic flow than drivers themselves do.
    In June, Volkswagen previewed an automated, driverless version of its Golf GTi model that could zoom around a test track at highway speeds without hitting obstacle cones in its path. Mercedes-Benz has introduced an optional short-range radar system designed to prevent rear-end collisions in stop-and-go traffic by keeping the car at a set distance behind the vehicle in front of it, braking and accelerating as traffic slows down and speeds up. Volkswagen's Audi brand is among others introducing similar expensive optional cruise-control systems that can work in traffic and from a standstill.
    With rivals like Mercedes, Audi and Nissan's Infiniti unit is beginning to offer similar features on their vehicles, BMW - which has weathered criticism over the complexity of some of its technology - is taking pains to design its systems to cause customers the least amount of confusion and embarrassment. BMW's Lane Departure Warning function uses a camera to scan the area in front of the car for road markings and warn the driver when the car veers inadvertently out of its lane. When activated, it causes the steering wheel to vibrate, rather than emitting an audible warning that would be heard by passengers.
    Like Mercedes, BMW has developed a short-range radar system designed to prevent rear-end collisions in stop-and-go traffic by keeping the car at a set distance behind the next vehicle. BMW hasn't disclosed pricing for its system, which it says it is "about to enter series production," but acknowledges it is watching how Mercedes customers take to Mercedes' cruise-control system, which comes as part of a package of other options for $2,850 on its flagship S-Class sedan and new CL coupe.

    Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

    Comments are currently unavailable on this article

    ▲ Return to Top