There’s no question that self-driving cars, or autonomous vehicles (AVs), will dominate the highways of the future. Several carmakers already have some form of AV running tests on public streets in select areas. At some point, drivers will be able to safely snooze, read a book or apply makeup from behind the wheel — or maybe not sit behind the wheel at all.
In the meantime, the race among carmakers to be first to put a fully autonomous car into production is reaping rewards for us today in the form of safety features. Just as the space race inspired popular products found in most homes today, such as Velcro and microwave ovens, the race to develop a fully functional AV is advancing automotive safety technology at an unprecedented pace.
At least in early-generation AVs, cameras will play a huge role in not only monitoring surrounding traffic and other objects but in lane keeping, as well. Rearview cameras, which engage when a vehicle is in reverse gear, provide a view of what’s behind the vehicle. This is particularly helpful for spotting shorter objects, such as children or pets. Rearview cameras are already available in most vehicles, but a government mandate will make them standard in all new cars beginning with the 2018 model year.
Whether they’re called 360-degree, surround or bird’s-eye cameras, the camera systems that present a complete view around a vehicle are currently offered in a number of vehicles.
Adaptive Cruise Control
Unlike traditional cruise control that only manages throttle speed, adaptive cruise control (ACC) oversees the throttle and the brakes to maintain a preset safe distance when following other traffic. Most systems use radar or laser technology to keep track of the vehicles ahead. ACC will slow and then resume the programmed speed of your vehicle to maintain that safe distance. More advanced ACC systems even brake the vehicle to a complete stop, automatically re-engaging the throttle as traffic begins to move again.
Collision Alert and Mitigation
Camera- or radar-based collision systems monitor objects and the rate at which your vehicle is approaching them to issue either a warning or a warning followed by automatic braking when the system calculates that a crash may occur. Bad things can happen in the blink of an eye — thankfully, these collision systems don’t blink. Several carmakers offer some form of these forward-looking systems. Infiniti even has such a system that brakes the vehicle to a complete stop to avoid obstacles when backing up.
Rear Cross-Traffic Alert
Another bit of radar-based technology, rear cross-traffic alert warns drivers of oncoming traffic that will cross behind the vehicle when backing up. If you’ve ever backed out of a tight parking space between two much larger vehicles, you are well aware that significant blind spots prevent you from seeing approaching vehicles. Rear cross-traffic alert can often spot those hard-to-see vehicles and sound an alert.
Lane-Departure Warning and Lane-Keep Assist
One of the more common causes of collisions — nearly 40 percent by some studies — is driving off the road. A camera-based lane-departure warning feature uses one or more cameras to keep an eye on the painted lines that establish the lane in which a vehicle is traveling. When the system senses that the vehicle is drifting over one of those lines, it alerts the driver through audio or visual warnings, or both. Lane-keep assist is a further refinement of lane-departure warning that not only delivers alerts when the vehicle begins drifting out of its lane but also uses the steering system to nudge the vehicle back on track.
What it means to you: Whether you welcome or dread the idea of self-driving cars, you should know that going forward, every generation of new cars will be safer than the one before it because of AV technology.