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“Never gonna happen” just got a lot closer. According to Ford the self-driving car will be here within five years, using technologies available today. The smart car will take over your morning commute on clogged freeways, improving your speed and reducing fuel consumption. The technology concept, known as Traffic Jam Assist, uses adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and the sensors from its active park assist.
While driver safety is the primary benefit, the environment wins as well. Ford makes this projection, based on simulator studies: If one in four cars has Traffic Jam Assist or similar self-driving technologies, travel times are reduced by 37.5% and delays are reduced by 20%. In other words, if the freeway part of your rush hour commute takes 60 minutes, it it will drop to 38. That’s because adaptive cruise control (ACC) is better at pacing the car ahead without continual brake, speed-up, brake cycles.
Here’s how it works: Stop-and-go ACC keeps pace with the car ahead, using a look-ahead radar and mirror-mounted camera. Lane keep assist keeps the car centered, also taking advantage of the camera in the mirror. Electric power steering is better for remote control than mechanical power steering; it can be guided by the Traffic Jam Assist black box. Sonar units — for blind spot detection and cross traffic alerts (cars crossing behind when backing) — monitor traffic to the side. Combine all those and you have a car that’s smart enough to guide itself during predictable, low-speed conditions.
Ford says Traffic Jam Assist can deal with a car cutting in ahead of you, but because ACC can maintain a tighter following distance than you would, there would be less cutting in line. The driver is always in control, if she wants to be, and can take over for the car at any time by moving the wheel or stepping on the throttle or brakes.
The other reason low-speed — this is Traffic Jam Assist after all — autonomous driving might happen first is the low speed. A car at 20 mph covers about 30 feet, or less than two car lengths, in one second. At 60 mph, it covers 88 feet. So it’s easier to slow and stop the car in traffic jams. Also, in the worst-case situation where the car doesn’t know what to do next, it can come to a dead stop in the travel lane at the same time it alerts the driver to take over. You can do that in a traffic jam but not when traffic is flowing at the speed limit.
For Traffic Jam Assist to work, Ford says you need a limited access roadway with no bicyclists, pedestrians, or animals (that you care about), and well-marked lanes.
Others, led by Volvo with City Safety and Pedestrian Safety, have created technologies that stop cars in potential accident situations on urban roads. Volvo doesn’t need a limited-access road, but City Safety is stop-only; it’s not continuous self-driving.
As an offshoot of Traffic Jam Assist, Ford says it will extend the capabilities of Active Park Assist, which is offered on cars now, from parallel parking to perpendicular parking, meaning parking at the mall or supermarket. In both cases, the car measures and steers while the driver controls the throttle and brakes.
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