Both car drivers and policymakers are still extremely wary of the idea of fully self-driving vehicles. However, assisted driving hybrid systems – in which the driver takes on a similar role to a passenger directing a chauffeur – are now being developed.
The act of driving a car comprises a series of separate manoeuvres – accelerating, turning right, changing lanes, etc – each of which requires a decision and involves a multiplicity of reflexes on the part of the driver. You need to keep a careful eye on the road and watch out for signals and other vehicles, making use of rear-view and side mirror, all of which calls for close attention and precision. In cars with advanced computer systems, all these tasks can be carried out by the vehicle’s operating system but the feeling of having these decisions taken away from you can nevertheless be extremely stressful. Now a team of researchers at the Technical University (TU) of Darmstadt are testing out a system called pieDrive, which gives the driver the impression that s/he is in overall control, while at the same time entrusting most of the automatic reflexes to the smart on-board system. The TU team have developed a novel operating system to put the ‘connected driving’ concept into action.
TU’s pieDrive assisted driving approach goes some way towards an ‘auto-pilot’ system but it allows drivers to feel as though they are still driving the car. The TU Darmstadt team – Michaela Kauer and Benjamin Franz – have opted for a two-part system, consisting of a heads-up display plus an input device in the form of a touchpad on the centre console. The range of possible driving manoeuvres in a given situation are projected, unobtrusively but clearly, on to the windscreen. It actually looks as though they are part of the scenery beyond the windscreen. By swiping a finger on the touchpad, drivers can then select the manoeuvre they wish the car to perform.
Thus pieDrive maintains a high degree of flexibility, enabling drivers to choose how much help they want to receive. This assisted driving operating system is able to carry out manoeuvre sequences that a driver may find tricky or tiring: breaking under full control at a pedestrian crossing, negotiating complex city junctions, and keeping to the various speed limits. Basically, it provides a sort of automated chauffeur that will take instructions from the passenger. Moreover, the chauffeur’s driving style can be customised to suit the owner. It can for instance be programmed to be a bit more zippy when setting off or changing gear. Testing on a simulator has shown that most people can get used to driving with pieDrive very easily.
The system now needs to go through certification by the automotive industry and manufacturers will then have to decide whether to integrate it into their future series models. From an insurance point of view however, although pieDrive is not a fully-automated system it poses the same basic problems as self-driving vehicles; in the event of an accident it might be difficult to assign liability to an algorithm.
A major advantage of self-driving vehicles and auto-pilot systems is that they enable the driver-passenger to use the journey time more productively, perhaps helping to make up for the shortage of office space downtown. Certainly this is part of the thinking behind Google’s determined development of self-driving cars, which will enable the owner to work or relax online. However, the pieDrive inventors are not focusing on the time-use aspect but looking to enhance the overall driving experience, still keeping the driver busy and alert throughout the entire journey.