Self-driving towards the future

November 28, 2013 12:33 PM

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Self-driving towards the future

At your home you climb aboard your vehicle, punch your destination into your personal iPad style tablet, and instruct the vehicle to take you there.

The vehicle reverses out of your driveway, checking left and right to make sure no other traffic is in the way, and then heads off on your journey, with you doing none of the driving.

You know that if there is other traffic, pedestrians or various obstacles along the way, the vehicle will electronically negotiate its way through all of that in total safety.

Your destination is the local supermarket, and once you arrive at the entrance to its carpark you climb out of the vehicle, head to an ATM-style touch screen and order the car to be parked.

Entirely on its own the car maneouvres its way around other driverless vehicles and eventually reverses into a parking bay. Then when you've finished your shopping you order your car back again. It drives out of the parking bay, draws up alongside, and you climb aboard and head off home.

Welcome to the new world of the intelligent transport system, the buzzword for a massive amount of research under way with one aim in mind - to make the world's roads safer for everyone.

We're already benefiting from such research. Traffic signal control, satellite navigation systems, speed cameras, electronic carpark information, and vehicle on-board radar and cameras are just some technologies introduced in recent years to help cope with increasing numbers of vehicles on the world's roads, especially in urban areas.

But now the research is going a lot further, and it is achieving some remarkable results.

A couple of hours up the road from Tokyo is Tochigi, where Honda Motor Company has a sprawling research and development centre. It's the hub for 22 other Honda R&D facilities around the world, and it is the scene of a massive amount of automotive research.

Like every other automotive R&D centre, Tochigi is normally a strictly no-go location for the public and the press. But last week Honda opened the facility's doors to the world motoring media in a big effort to showcase its take on future development of intelligent transport.

The Honda dream is simple - it wants to help achieve a collision-free motoring environment.

It has already taken significant steps towards that aim, with some of its vehicles currently available in New Zealand fitted out with impressive active safety technology. For example, the radar-based system aboard the latest Accord that takes over up to 80 per cent of steering effort if it detects the car is in danger of wandering across a road's white lines. The potential next step is for the technology to completely take over operation of a vehicle.

Honda calls it co-operative autonomous driving, and at Tochigi it has developed an Accord hybrid sedan that can negotiate its way through an urban street environment on its own.

It was a weird sensation sitting in this car as it went through its paces. We headed off, me as a passenger and with the driver sitting there with his hands on his knees, and the Accord cornered then headed down a street before pulling up at a pedestrian crossing when its on-board stereo camera spotted a person about to step out on to the road.

A little later its on-board Wi-Fi detected an electric cart about to cross in front, so once again the car stopped.

Then a short-range camera spotted an approaching motorcyclist and the car took evasive action - but not so much as to interfere with the journey of a vehicle that wave radar had spotted coming up from behind.

We carried on, with stereo cameras recognising the location of parked vehicles and the width of narrow urban streets, before we pulled up at a designated parking area at the end of our journey.

And throughout the journey, a suite of LED lights had constantly advised those aboard on the state of the outside motoring environment - green lights telling us there was no immediate risk, orange warning us via external sensors of approaching visible risk, and white warning us via wireless communications of invisible risk such as a vehicle approaching from around a blind corner.

All of this activity took place at very low speeds over a specially prepared course, but it did vividly demonstrate that the technology is being developed to allow it to happen.

And anyone who has been forced to spend hours stuck in heavy traffic in and around such big cities as Tokyo will know that it needs to happen. Like it or not - co-operative automomous driving isn't far away.


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