Alan Taub, shortly before his recent retirement from his post as vice president of General Motors Global R&D, said that when it comes to vehicle-related safety, the last 50 years have pretty much been spent focusing on protecting the occupants of the vehicle and, more recently, pedestrians. This is generally known as “passive safety.” Something happens and the system tries to mitigate the consequences. But during the last decade, he said, there has been an additional concentration on doing things to help reduce the incidents of collisions or other accidents, such as deploying electronic stability control. This is “active safety.” It helps keep things from happening.
“If I can make a vehicle that doesn’t crash,” he speculated, “I have laid the foundation for a vehicle that drives itself.”
So is it possible that the day of the autonomous vehicle is not that far ahead? Shortly after Taub made his comments, I was on a test track at the GM Milford Proving Grounds in a Cadillac SRX traveling at 60 mph on the oval and my hands not on the steering wheel. Around the track I went. And when another car moved in front of me (this was a controlled environment), the car slowed appropriately, with no input from me.
This vehicle, which was using a variety of sensors, both optical- and radar-based, although an engineering vehicle, looked fairly standard, not anything like the Chevrolet Tahoe that won the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge competition, an autonomous vehicle that had so many external devices on it that it resembled something out of a bad science fiction movie. (That said: It won.)
But there is still a ways to go to get to that world, lots of development to be done (e.g., GM is working on LIDAR [Light Detection and Ranging] systems that use pulsed lasers for range detection), and so in the mean time, they are working at deploying proven technologies in their products.
So, for example, GM is going to be offering a suite of active safety and driver assistance technologies in the 2013 Cadillac XTS and ATS models, which is fairly comprehensive, as in: rear automatic braking; full-speed range adaptive cruise control; intelligent brake assist; forward collision alert; automatic collision preparation; lane departure warning; side blind zone alert; rear cross traffic alert; adaptive forward lighting; rear vision camera with dynamic guidelines; head-up display.
While these technologies are available on other vehicles, there is something that the company is first to market with: the patented Cadillac Safety Alert Seat.
It is a driver’s seat. As plush, appointed, and comfortable as any seat you’d expect to find in a Cadillac. But there are two small motors embedded in the seat. These motors are actuated by the other sensors that are part of the suite. For example, in the event that the lane departure warning is active and the driver is drifting out of his lane to the left, there is a subtle but noticeable vibration on his left side. Or if the rear automatic braking system is activated (it uses radar and ultrasonic sensors to detect objects behind the vehicle)—that is, if the vehicle is backing into an object like a pole and the system determines that the driver has not hit the brakes, then the system provides warnings such as both sides of the seat vigorously vibrating (but not too overtly, like some Magic Fingers gone wild), and if that doesn’t do it, then the brakes are automatically applied.
Raymond Kiefer, GM Active Safety Technical Fellow, explained, “Using the tactile sense to communicate crash threat direction provides an effective and intuitive way to cut through the clutter of visual and auditory sensory information that drivers routinely experience.”
Said another way: While most safety systems provide blinking lights and buzzers, the seat vibration is something sufficiently different to garner attention.
Taub said that five years ago he thought that sensor technology would be the limiting factor as regards the safe, autonomous vehicle. He doesn’t think that anymore.—GSV