The remarkable thing about letting a car do the braking for you is not that the car stops. It’s how late the car hits the brakes. It’s almost as if a teenager were testing his or her reflexes. Those of us raised on automatic transmissions and cruise control may expect cars to take flighty human drivers out of the loop rather quickly. But if my ride in a test vehicle at the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show is any indicator, carmakers are taking their time taking over. Even the most imperturbable driving instructor might get jumpy using today’s autonomous emergency braking (AEB), also called advanced emergency braking systems.
The first time I tried parallel parking in a manual-shift car, I got halfway into a spot, nose first, on a sloping cobblestone street in a Pyrenean village before I realized I did not know how to put the car in reverse. I emerged in shame to ask a local for help. My impromptu valet found the ring I had to lift on the shift to put it in reverse gear. He also noted that it would be easier to back into the spot.
Lesson learned. But it is now moot: Last year, a car appeared on the market with a button on the dashboard that could be my next valet. Parking assistance has been street legal since 2003, when Toyota rolled out a Prius model in Japan with the ability to take over steering into a parallel-parking spot. Drivers had to select the parking spot on a dashboard video screen and then operate the gears, accelerator, and brake while the car did the steering.
Drifting across the desert for a music video: cool. Drifting around a test track in an autonomous car: also cool. Drifting out of your lane on the highway: not cool. Carmakers have been warning drivers not to leave their lanes since 2001, with subtle hints such as audible beeps or vibrating steering wheels. These early systems used cameras to track lane lines painted on the road. A decade ago, Toyota’s first lane-keeping system took over the steering wheel and nudged wayward cars back into line when the driver would not. But because these systems relied on cameras and early image-processing algorithms, they worked only where the lines were clear and in good visibility.
Today’s lane-keeping systems are evolving. The Volkswagen Touareg can track a single lane stripe, and the company claims that the car can track lanes in the dark and in the fog. It manages the feat with a single camera, unlike some systems that use stereoscopic cameras or include information from a radar or other additional sensor.
On the A-1 highway north of Madrid, Ford Spain’s press fleet manager, Eusebio Ruiz, locks his car’s radar onto another vehicle perhaps 75 meters ahead. An outline of the car appears on the dashboard with a few red bars behind it indicating the target distance. Deep memories of the film Top Gun and years of flight-simulator play kick in, and I reach for the joystick to arm my Sidewinder missiles. But the Ford Kuga is armed with neither Sidewinders nor a joystick. I sigh, click my pen, and continue taking notes as Ruiz fiddles with buttons on the steering wheel.