Friday, August 14, 2015

One step away

I have some fascinating technology in my current car. There's radar in the front that can detect when a physical object of significant mass (like another vehicle) is in front of me and destined to collide with me if I don't slow down. And it alerts me to that fact. That same radar is used in the version of Mercedes Benz cruise control (adaptive) that I don't have, which allows a driver to not only set the desired speed, but also allows the car to slow down and maintain a safe distance when the traffic in front is doing less than my set speed. I also have something in my side mirrors that constantly checks my blind spots on both sides and alerts me when something is in them, and gets quite vocal when I use my turn signal to show my intent to occupy that already occupied blind spot. I also have sensors in my front and rear bumpers that gives the car the ability to parallel park itself, with a skill and sense of confidence that even I lack sometimes.

My car is also able, using a camera looking forward through my windshield, to sense where the lane marking are and alert me when it thinks I'm drifting too close to the edge of my lane. It's this technology that I get to monitor in real time, because there's an icon in my instrument cluster that lights up whenever the lane departure feature is active (it's the one in the picture, just left of the R). Which in turn  tells me that it can see the lane markings. It can't always see the lane markings, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's because the markings just aren't there, having worn away or been obliterated thanks to road construction. Sometimes it's because the markings don't make any sense to the computer interpreting the view the camera is seeing. Sometimes it's because the sun is shining directly into the camera and blinding it. No matter the reason, I find myself watching the lane sense feature icon turn on and off and can almost predict to the exact second when and under what circumstances the car's computer will be able to make sense of the lane markings. There's no doubt in my mind that this feature's abilities would improve tenfold if the car used more than one camera, and the computer was also able to distinguish reflective road barriers and other visual cues that identify the side of a road.

All of this of course is a silent but significant milestone in the history of car intelligence and awareness, because it's just a few currently available steps in technology away, from being able to completely drive itself. It's one reason why I never had a doubt that a reliable self driving car is just around the corner for the masses.

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