NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Barreling down a rough, asphalt track at 80 miles per hour and no one is holding the steering wheel of the car. Instinct kicks in. You flail around for a bracing for a handhold of any kind. Then the car brakes, accelerates through the turn to the outside of the track, and heads down the next straightaway.
The second pass, you consciously fight the instinct to hold on. The third time, it doesn’t cross your mind.
Getting used to cars that drive themselves, can happen fast. And the feature, is no longer part of the future.
“They’re here now,” said Nic Phillips from the Texas Auto Writers Association. “It’s just a matter of cost.”
In a year where Tesla, Uber and Google have promised a fully autonomous car is imminent, the building blocks of the technology are on sales lots now. Most buyers, Phillips said, don’t realize how much new cars already do, until it saves them.
“I think the first time they find out about the feature it may have, is when it saves them from backing into a pole,” he said.
After just a few hours in Volvo’s new XC90 SUV, we were relaxed driving through rush hour traffic. The Pilot Assist feature slows you down when cars in front of you brake. It crawls ahead without you touching the accelerator. It steers as long as it can see the white lane lines, though you don’t want to keep your hands off the wheel too long or the car will ask you to take over (we found every 13-seconds or so).
This year, more than a dozen manufacturers including BMW, Honda, Kia, Mazda and Mercedes are selling cars that have similar systems that help you crawl through traffic.
Automakers like Ford have been offering self-parking cars for seven years already. They are not confined to high-end models. The mid-size Escape SUV will find a spot for you, and get you in and out.
“What’s amazing is it’s not just a reality, but people are buying it, and using it,” said Alvaro Cabal from Ford.
Fiat, GM and Volkswagen all offer the feature this year, among others.
San Antonio’s Southwest Research Institute has been advancing the technology for a decade. During a test track demonstration, engineers showed off a 10-year-old SUV, using a camera to wind flawlessly through a maze of hairpin turns.
Perception systems, picked up on pedestrians, and kept a car on the road at high speeds, with hands off the wheel.
And they’ve found they can fit it to just about anything, including a semi-truck tractor. “It’s a new thing for you,” said engineer Stephan Lemmer. “But you start doing this every day, you start taking these out, you realize maybe after a day or two of playing with it, you’re just working on your laptop while the car drives itself.”
Of the five levels of autonomous driving defined by engineers and the government, most vehicles are at best, level two. Besides more miles, and more testing, Chris Mentzer who manages unmanned systems at SWRI, told us it isn’t necessarily technology that’s the roadblock to letting cars do all the driving now.
“if you took all the people off the road, and put all these vehicles on the road by themselves it would actually happen a lot faster,” he said.
On a drive with Phillips, unexpected road construction detours showed a potential hurdle.
“This is a perfect example,” he said. “We’re in a construction zone, you’ve got barrels and holes in the road.”
The car still needed us to figure out where to go next.
“We humans are pretty smart,” Phillips said.
Uber is testing Volvo’s like the one we drove, that are up to level 4. And Tesla, has promised its cars will have the potential for level 5, by next year.
But if you’ve been waiting for a car that can guide you through a North Texas rush hour, relaxed, it’s already on the lot.
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