Top automated car safety tech advances

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The last six months have seen a lot of companies announce new initiatives to improve the safety of their customers. Much of these are automated or related to black-box tracking, which makes us all the more excited here at Telemat.com, as that stuff is our bread and butter. So to give you a better idea of all the different tech that the world’s auto-makers are working on, we’ve gone through their best and brightest reports to find just what it is they plan to offer the world in the next few years and as you would expect, it’s quite exciting stuff.

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Volvo

Volvo might not be quite the household name in English speaking nations, but it’s working on some of the most important safety technology out there at the moment. While a lot of its vehicles in the near future will include things like lane-assist technology and smart cruise control, which prevents people from drifting out of their lane on the motoryway and automatically brakes if you’re getting too close to the car in-front respectively, its avoidance technologies are far more exciting.

A few months ago we got our first look at its animal avoidance technology which users radar, lasers and infrared imaging to pinpoint animals that are in the road in-front of you and potentially off to the sides too. It then gives you an early warning indicator to let you know to slow down. If you don’t and the animal continues to be a danger, the car will automatically brake for you, bringing you down to a much more manageable speed, or potentially even stopping you altogether.

Of course this sort of detection technology isn’t just for animals, but for humans and other obstacles too. While initially designed to target large animals like cows, horses, deer and moose, the same sort of avoidance tech can be applied to smaller targets too. That means if you’re heading across an intersection and someone is going to walk out in-front of you, again the car will warn you and brake itself if needed.

That automated braking also comes into play with the largest targets of all: other cars. If you happen to be approaching a stationary or slow moving car at a speed at which the car thinks you could have an accident, it will again give you a warning and then slow you down itself if necessary.

All of this is designed to achieve two goals for Volvo. Firstly, it wants to become one of the pioneering companies when it comes to engineering fully automated vehicles. If that’s to happen, it will need to perfect obstacle avoidance and safe driving at higher speeds. The second reason, is to fulfil a pledge it made earlier this year that no one would die or even be injured when driving in a Volvo car (whether they’re in control or not) from 2020 onwards.

That seems like a pretty lofty goal, but I for one am excited by its potential.

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Audi

Audi isn’t quite as focused on safety as some of the other companies on this list and why should it? That’s not what Audi is all about. No Audi as a brand, is about style. The substance is there too of course, but like a lot of the VW cars, you can get the same sort of quality for a lot less if you opt for Skoda or Seat. It’s all the same parts, just a different badge.

But that aside, it doesn’t mean that Audi has done nothing to improve the safety of its drivers using automated features. In-fact, when it comes to performance autonomous driving, it currently holds the top spot for being the most impressive. Recently, Audi impressed the world by taking one of its high-powered RS7 cars around a test track in Germany, setting a time that would make a lot of professional drivers jealous.

Just using its built in radar, lap tracking systems and onboard analysis of each corner and straight, it was able to drive it as well as someone with years and years of high-speed racing experience. That’s huge.

It wasn’t quite perfect of course, with some human drivers on the scene able to beat it by several seconds, but it’s a clear indication that we won’t always be limited by speed like many autonomous features currently are. It also shows there’s room for improvement, with the tightening of times and a better understanding of a roadway. Indeed, the RS7 did get better at driving around the track as time went on and it completed more laps, so we may find that the second generation of automated vehicles is a lot better than the first, simply because it will have more data to work with right from the get go.

Along with these fully automated features (which do require a pre-set track at the moment) Audi, like many other manufacturers has a few stop-gap technologies it’s been working on. In 2011, it introduced its autonomous cruise control system in a few high end models, giving drivers a warning if they are approaching a car in-front and eventually braking for them if the car feels they’re about to cause a crash. Similarly so, it will give you a warning and a gentle correction if you’re heading out of your lane.

While it still doesn’t work as well at higher speeds and can’t guarantee to stop you in time if the obstacle is small or going very slowly, it does at least give you some extra coverage beyond your own abilities to perceived danger.

When it somehow manages to combine the new “piloted” RS7 with this sort of tech at those sorts of speeds, then we need to get very excited.

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Ford

Ford might not be racing cars around tracks without anyone behind the wheel, or pledging to create an injury free car by 2020, but it does have some interesting ideas up its sleeve to help drivers (you and those around you) be that bit safer on the roadways.

The upcoming S-Max is perhaps the best example of this, featuring a collection of automated safety features, many of them coming as standard instead as part of advanced and expensive options packages. For starters, it has all of the common automated features like lane assist and adaptive cruise control, helping you stay in your lane on the motorway and not allowing you to plough into the back of the person in-front of you lose attention for a minute.

While not a safety feature per say, there is a new automated parking feature, which is able to slot your car in a parrallel or perpendicular space, making it much less likely that you’ll graze the side of your new car against those of your neighbours. However, for those that want to the parking themselves, there’s a rear facing camera that sends a feed right to your dashboard. Now of course I wouldn’t be talking about this if there wasn’t some sort of automated facet to it and there is: a traffic warning system.

It works by detecting incoming traffic or other ‘obstacles’ like passengers and animals. This meanns that if you are about to reverse out  of a blind junction, or a spot where you simply can’t see what’s behind you, the automated system can give you a warning before anything has even appeared on the screen. The same goes for the front too, with autonomous emergency braking installed to make sure that if someone steps out in-front of your car, it will stop before it hits them (at low speeds).

Similarly, blind spot detection can give you another warning if you’re about to change lanes and someone is coming up behind you and due to your mirror placement you just haven’t seen them. Again, the lane assist can kick in and stop you transitioning in that moment if needed.

Perhaps the technology that’s most forward thinking in the new S-Max and certainly is likely to feature in a number of other Ford vehicles in the near future, is the car to car communication technology. That’s where machine to machine (M2M) networking technology comes into place. The new S-Max comes fitted with a communications and sensor system, that allows your car to ‘talk’ to other Fords in the local area via GPS. If there’s an accident up ahead causing rapid braking, one of the Ford’s that reached it before you might let yours know, in which case a warning can be flashed up.

Similarly if there’s a car stopped on a blind bend and it happens to be a Ford, your car will know about it before you do, because the two machines will have communicated with one another.

Other minor features include one that many will appreciate if they drive at night: an auto-dimming rearview mirror, which prevents you from being dazzled by the headlights of cars behind, lowering the reflective quality of the mirror automatically when its hit by a headlights. On top of that, there’s an automated tyre-pressure warning system that will automatically let you know when your tyres are starting to lose pressure and need a top up.

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Tesla

Electric car maker Tesla is taking things a steep further than the above manufacturers. Yes it’s working on parking sensors and next year plans to release a car that can park itself and practically drive on the motorway by itself, but using a combination of sonar, lasers, radar and on-board cameras, Tesla claims it’s developing a car that by 2016, will be able to drive itself 90 per cent of the time.

Of course that’s a lofty claim and something that Google can already lay claim to have done. The downside to Google’s offerings however are that its pod cars only work on a selection of simple, pre-mapped roads. Tesla is suggesting that its cards can do almost all roads right off of the bat.

While we have a bit of a wait on our hands before we can see the full extent of Tesla’s automomatic, automotive development, we’ll be getting our first taste of it early next year, as Tesla is currently fitting production models of its vehicles with the ability to handle several specific situations. For example, cars starting next year will come with automated emergency braking.

While that is hardly news to those that keep up with car developments, what is  impressive however is the speed that it operates at. There are a lot of comopanies with autonomous emergency braking, but most work at 30 miles per hour or less. Tesla’s purportedly is able to bring you to a full stop from 60 miles per hour in just three seconds.

The first car to come fitted with these features (including the parking assist and everything) will be rather expensive, coming in at $120,000 to tart with. That’s the Model S P85. However, in the future, owners of the standard Model S, will be able to upgrade it to the piloted version for just $4,250.

Both of these options are still a lot cheaper than Google’s pod cars, which are suggested as costing upwards of $250,000  each.

Toyota

Toyota

Toyota has been a bit more quiet than the other car makers on its own automated safety development. However if you’ve seen what the others are working with, then you should have a good idea of what it’s been working on as there isn’t anything quite as unique with it.

It has things like smart cruise control, which stops you going into the back of other cards on the motorway and lane assist, which means if you stray from your lane you’ll get a little warning. It also uses built in lasers, radar and sonar to detect cars ahead of you, so if you’re approaching a stationary vehicle it will automatically apply the brakes if you don’t react fast enough.

The more advanced features includes a pedestrian and animal detection system, that will guarantee to stop you in time from anywhere up to 30 kilometres per hour. However, it will still work at higher speeds, but will just be less effective. At the very least, it should slow you down if there’s an impending accident.

With these systems, it could theoretically allow for hands-free driving during motorway jams, as you can simply set cruise control at a low speed and the car will accelerate and brake as needed to keep you moving forward at a decent speed, whilst keeping you from leaving your lane or from bumping into the person in-front of you.

Toyota is also promising automated headlamps that kick in when you’re on a particularly dark patch of road, but automatically switch to dimmed if another car is coming the other way.

While this is all quite typical stuff at this point, where Toyota does differentiate itself is the clear options packages it puts these systems in. The standard Safety Sense package will give you lane assist, automated emergency braking and automated headlights. However upgrading to the Sensor P package will net you the smart cruise control and pedestrian avoidance systems.

It’s going to be interesting to see if Toyota’s method of splitting up these safety extras is the tack taken by other automakers, or if they will try and make them mandatory and thereby improve the safety ratings of its vehicles overall.

Conclusion

So there you have it. The top automated safety technologies out there right now, available for purchase today and in the near future. While there’s a lot of companies working on interesting things, these ones are at the forefront of these sorts of technologies. Of course though Google and Baidu are far more advanced when it comes to full automation.

Maybe they should be our next detail look in.

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Jon Martindale is an English author and journalist, who's written for a number of high-profile technology news outlets, covering everything from the latest hardware and software releases, to hacking scandals and online activism.