Electric powertrains are not the only preoccupation for carmakers. They all are aware of the competitive advantage can be gained by becoming the first OEM to master the art of self-driving. Tesla seems to be blazing a trail, with its level 5 autonomy-ready hardware aboard every new car that leaves the factory. A few months ago, CEO Elon Musk said that by 2019, the camera system and underlying technology would be reliable and performant enough to take full control of the vehicle under all conditions. That would be at least 3 years sooner than its competitors, who all believe that autonomy is a step-by-step process. But who else is actually in the game?
At the end of June, Renault proudly announced it was “gathering momentum in the step-by-step endeavour that starts with advanced driver assistance systems, followed by autonomous drive and ultimately eyes-off/hands-off mode.” By 2020, the French carmaker reckons its vehicles will have single-lane control, meaning that they can stay in-lane at a safe distance from the car in front on motorways. You could say this is level 3 autonomy. Renault reckons that thereafter, it will be one of the first volume automakers to phase in eyes-off/hands-off technology (level 4) in mass-market vehicles. In practice, this means the driver is no longer required to keep a watchful eye when the car is queuing or cruising down the motorway.
Just a few weeks before, VW’s premium subsidiary Audi presented it news flagship model, the aluminium A8, in Barcelona. Apart from the fact that it is one of the first vehicles to introduce a 48V electrical system – which basically makes it a mild hybrid, just like the Renault Scénic Hybrid Assist – it could be considered as the first level 3 car on the market, but the technology is not legal (yet) in many countries. The A8 has the hardware and software to drive by itself on a semi-permanent basis. It can accelerate, steer and brake autonomously, without requiring the driver to take back control on regular brief intervals.
Mercedes would not be Mercedes if it wouldn’t fight back and give Tesla and the four rings tit for tat. The revamped A8-rivalling S-Class receives a major upgrade in terms of connectivity and driver assistance systems, united in the Intelligent Drive suite. The world’s best-selling limousine can now change lanes with a single tap on the indicator stalk. Moreover, Mercedes claims the S-Class’ new Active Distance Assist Distronic uses substantially more navigation and mapping data, for instance to adapt the driving speed to locally applicable limits. Finally, Active Emergency Stop can pull the car to a complete halt if the driver does not respond to warnings.
That is also what the new XC60 of Swedish carmaker Volvo can do – next to several other tricks embedded in the car’s Pilot Assist, which was introduced in 2014 on the XC90. Self-driving in Volvo’s book is first of all a matter of safety. There is no way it would launch autonomous vehicles if they would not be 100 percent safe. Hakan Samuelsson, the CEO of the Geely-owned company, believes Volvo will have a car that can drive by itself on the motorway by 2021. Remarkably, in 2015, Volvo became the first carmaker to promise to accept full liability when one of its cars is involved in an accident whilst in autonomous mode.
Picture copyright: Renault, 2017