Should Vehicles Protect Us From Ourselves?

The era of autonomous mobility appears to be close at hand. And some automotive experts are apprehensive. Aisin World Corp. of America is talking about cars that can parallel park themselves with the push of a button. Other suppliers speak of near-term technology that will make cars quicker to respond than humans. Suppliers say a host of technologies will enable cars to correct human mistakes even

The era of autonomous mobility appears to be close at hand. And some automotive experts are apprehensive.

Aisin World Corp. of America is talking about cars that can parallel park themselves with the push of a button. Other suppliers speak of near-term technology that will make cars quicker to respond than humans.

Suppliers say a host of technologies will enable cars to correct human mistakes even before they are made.

With laser- and radar-based adaptive cruise control, the car can set the throttle to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle ahead and even apply the brakes if necessary.

Camera-based lane-detection systems can tell when a vehicle has strayed from its intended path and warn the driver or even apply the brakes to certain wheels to keep the vehicle on course.

The most popular form of active safety today is electronic stability control (ESC), which will be in about 13% of new U.S. vehicles this year. Often without the driver even knowing it, the system selectively brakes certain wheels when sensors detect the vehicle is about to skid out of control.

ESC supplier Continental Teves Inc. now wants to carry ESC's capability a giant leap forward by linking it with rollover protection, lane-departure warning, active steering and increased braking pressure during panic stops, as well as passive restraint systems such as airbags, seat adjusters and seatbelt pretensioners, in an attempt to avoid crashes and injuries altogether.

“We're not dreaming in an irvory tower,” says Continental Deputy Chairman Wolfgang Ziebart. He adds: “We will definitely see this technology show up in the next generation of cars.”

But Sue Cischke, Ford Motor Co.'s vice president-environmental and safety engineering, says the industry must proceed cautiously because the technologies, though impressive, can take too much vehicle control from the driver.

“Not everyone will buy it. How much control is the driver willing to cede?” Cischke says of autonomous vehicles. “Today, we ask, ‘How far can we go?’ Tomorrow, maybe we ask, ‘How far do we want to go?’”

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