For consumers seeking safer roads and more fuel-efficiency, automated vehicles that rely on sensors -- not humans -- for driving are the next big thing in automotive technology. Google and General Motors recently announced new developments.
On Tuesday, Ford jumped into the market, announcing the development of new technology enabling drivers to "relax" in traffic with the aid of Traffic Jam Assist: The technology relies on radars and cameras so that a car can keep pace with other vehicles in traffic. It would also steer the car, keeping the vehicle in its lane. Ford did not say when Traffic Jam Assist will be available. This kind of technology might be tapped someday for the futuristic scenario of cars driving themselves.
“Drivers spend more than 30 percent of their time in heavy traffic,” said Joseph Urhahne, an engineer with Ford Research and Innovation, in a press release. “Traffic Jam Assist could help make traveling through congestion a more relaxing experience and, by keeping pace with the flow of traffic, potentially help relieve road congestion.”
The driverless-car future is often portrayed as a utopian wonderland for road-rage-weary highway travelers. In this world of fully automated driving, cars pace themselves, stay in the correct lane and brake in time to, say, avoid a deer jumping into the road. Under this scenario, fuel efficiency would soar and car fatalities would plummet. That is, if the technology works as promised.
Google is far along with its research on a driverless car. General Motors announced last week that it is studying the behavior of drivers behind the wheel of automated cars and expects some form of automated driving to be available in the next few years.
Ford has done simulations resulting in predictions that cars more evenly spaced in traffic could reduce road congestion, trim travel time 37.5 percent and diminish traffic delays 20 percent.
But it could have another added bonus: curbing fatalities from car accidents. Recent research in Spain that analyzed driving patterns concluded that the hours from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. are the most dangerous. That's because traffic causes people to change their driving behavior and navigate closer to other cars than they normally would.
Automated driving could help alleviate the distracted driving concerns that have increasingly cropped up as more people use smartphones to text and check email while driving, GM has said.
"Drivers are already engaging in risky behavior, and are likely to continue doing so given the prevalence of smartphones and other portable electronics, so why not make it safer for them and the people around them," said Eddy Llaneras, principal investigator at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, who is involved in GM's study. "Offering some form of vehicle automation with the proper safeguards might be better than what is happening on our roads today."
Drivers can already get a taste of what this technology could be like. Adaptive cruise control, which slows cars down when another vehicle is sensed in front of it, is already offered by Mercedes, Cadillac, Ford, Jaguar and Audi, among others. Some of the systems can cause the car to brake to a full stop.
In November GM will offer on Cadillac XTS and ATS sedans a Driver Assist Package, including adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking, which are designed to help prevent collisions caused by human error.
Ford's strategy has been to offer high-end technology to the masses. The company might even roll out Traffic Jam Assist for more mass-market models that would bring automated driving to even more consumers.
"Developing these technologies is part of the first step in a journey toward a more connected future,” said Paul Mascarenas, Ford's chief technical officer.
Much of the technology needed to make Traffic Jam Assist is already incorporated into the Ford Escape, Focus and Fusion.