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

At the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress here, at least one supplier, Aisin World Corp. of America, was talking about cars that can parallel park themselves, with the push of a button. Aisin supplies the system for the Japanese version of the new Toyota Prius.

Other suppliers, such as Valeo SA, Continental AG, Delphi Corp. and Denso Corp., spoke of near-term active safety technology that will make cars smarter – and 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.

Sensors throughout vehicle enable Continental Teves’ Active Passive Integration Approach to safety.

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.

On the ’04 Lexus LS 430, Denso supplies a pre-collision system that helps drivers avoid obstacles and can tighten seatbelts and activate the brakes if an unavoidable object is detected. (See related story: Denso PCS Technology Now Available in U.S.)

The most popular form of active safety today is electronic stability control (ESC), which will be installed on 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.

One 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.

Continental Deputy Chairman
Wolfgang Ziebart

Continental Deputy Chairman Wolfgang Ziebart says the company’s Active Passive Integration Approach will be ready for OEM applications in the 2006 timeframe, and that using environmental sensors to detect hazardous objects on the road will save lives by shortening stopping distances.

By preconditioning the brake system to increase brake pressure during panic stops based on information from the environmental sensors, Continental says tests show a normal stopping distance of 130 ft. (40 m) can be reduced by 15%.

“Environmental sensors will play a major role here,” Ziebart says at the start of an SAE panel discussion on safety this week. “We’re not dreaming in an ivory tower – this technology is available to do this. We definitely will 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, have the potential to take too much vehicle control away from the driver.

Such active safety systems must “perfectly measure the present and predict the future at the same time,” Cischke says, adding that total accident elimination may require a fully autonomous vehicle operating in a mass-transportation system.

“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?’”

Ziebart and other supplier executives point to National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. statistics that find drivers responsible for 90% of accidents on U.S. roadways.

Fellow panelist Richard Lind, director-advanced engineering of Delphi’s Electronics and Safety division, refers to many U.S. drivers as fatigued, stressed, drowsy or distracted by cell phones or other electronic devices.

But Lind says no technology can prevent accidents unless it takes into account the actions – or inactions – of the driver. “You’ve got to include the driver,” Lind says. “He is, after all, the cause of the accident.”

Lind suggests the technology exists to turn the vehicle into a “360-degree electromagnetic cocoon with surround sensing, collision warning, collision avoidance, interior-cabin sensing, multisensor fusion, forward-collision warning and mitigation and ultimately vehicle-to-vehicle communications so they can communicate to each other a traffic problem ahead.”

The panel discussion merely hinted at the issue of invasion of privacy, but it's bound to arise if cars are equipped with cameras to monitor – as some panelists suggested – whether a driver is paying attention or falling asleep at the wheel. The vehicle could then alert the driver through a vibration in the seat or an audible chime.

Some even suggested installing breathalyzers in cars that would fail to start if alcohol were detected on the driver’s breath.

Panelist Joseph Kanianthra, associate administrator-Vehicle Safety Research at NHTSA, says the only way to convince consumers that this advanced active safety technology is worthwhile is for the industry to devise standard test procedures for statistical validation.

“Safety will sell if it’s beneficial,” Kanianthra says. “Telling consumers what is good for safety is not good enough. Manufacturers need to do the tests and then put out the data.”

He quotes a NHTSA study that suggests crash-warning systems can prevent 800,000 rear-end accidents per year.

Kanianthra warns, however, that he should not be perceived as an advocate for autonomous driving. “Those who want to drive will buy cars,” he says. “Otherwise, they will ride the train.”

As to the public acceptance of autonomous systems, Kanianthra tells Ward’s he can only speculate because there is no research or data to argue for or against the technology.

“Some consumers could find it absolutely helpful. Others may find it unnecessary,” he says. “Would this type of control encourage aggressive drivers to take vehicles to the limit?”

Ziebart says he, too, is not advocating autonomous driving, and he says none of the safety technologies within the next two decades will meet governmental requirements for fully autonomous driving.

“The driver must always be in control, and we want to support the driver where he is not managing the car properly,” Ziebart says. In the U.S. market, he sees good opportunities for the technology because of the popularity of SUVs, which have a high center of gravity.

Ford’s Cischke reminds her fellow panelists that introducing technology for technology’s sake can be dangerous. “Because we can do it, doesn’t mean we should,” she says.