Driverless flying cars are not an uncommon sight in science fiction movies. But while flying cars might still be far from reality, autonomous cars are no longer a dream. One such car is currently being developed in Jerusalem, by Israeli Driver Assistance Systems’ company Mobileye.
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In recent years, Israel has become a major player in automated technology development. There are currently three companies developing automated driving systems in Israel: General Motors, Elbit Technologies, and now Mobileye. The company’s driverless test car is an Audi A7, worth NIS 588,000 ($154,000). Thirteen years after its establishment, the technology company that specializes in driver-assistance-systems, has decided to “recalculate its route” – and replace drivers with a system which enables the car to drive itself, at least for a little while.
“It’s not autonomous driving to the extent that the driver punches in a destination and goes to sleep,” Mobileye chairman prof. Amnon Shashua tells Israeli website TheMarker, “the system is able to assume control for a limited time. The driver could read a text message or change a radio station, while giving the cameras temporary control.”
The automated driving system is based on a combination of cameras, radars and audio sensors, which navigate the car even in a tight urban environment. The mobileye system is based on five cameras: two in the front, one on each side and one in the back. The cameras are synched with the company’s navigation system, which drives the car safely to its destination. “The system allows keeping safe distance and identification of traffic-lights and road signs. Using the side cameras, the car could cross an intersection that doesn’t have traffic lights and changing lanes in mid-city traffic. The system keeps the car in the middle of the lane and one could also use it to follow a specific car.”
“The technology is also useful in cases where the driver loses consciousness and has let go of the steering wheel. If such an event occurs, the car will independently pull over. Temporary control of the car is the second wave of driver perception-enhancement – while we are still on the first wave, which culminates with the car’s ability to break on its own in case of emergency. Therefore, the next phase is automated driving, the instant you let go of the wheel.”
“A computer will not drive into a crowded intersection”
Mobileye, founded in 1999 by Shashua, a computer science professor from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was based on technology developed by Shashua, which enabled the rendering of a three-dimensional image from three separate still-images. Later, Mobileye developed a computer chip for analyzing and processing said images. The computer was able to recognize situations of improper distance-keeping and sudden lane-change.
According to Shashua, after the company obtained 80 percent of the driver-assistance market, the shift towards autonomous driving was a natural development. However, unlike the previous market Mobileye operated in, the autonomous-driving market had such power players as Mercedes, General Motors and Google, which is conducting advanced experiments.
The first cars with autonomous driving features will be released next year, when Mercedes and Audi will offer a “traffic-jam-assistance” system on their high-end models. The system can maneuver the car in a traffic jam, accelerating and decelerating automatically.
Other manufacturers, led by Volvo and Honda, are working on sophisticated car-to-car communication systems, which will enable the car to assume control if necessary. For instance, if a car signals to another car that it is speeding into an intersection, another car could break automatically. Volvo is developing a sort-of “road train”, in which cars could follow one another or one leading car with a professional driver, without driver interference.
The most surprising competitor in the field is Google, which develops autonomous driving based on its maps and Street View. “The concept at Google is different,” Says Shashua, “they film the road and then drive it again, after installing a $70,000 sensor on the roof. The use of [pre-recorded visual material] makes identifying lanes redundant. The problem is that the car needs an enormous amount of information, and software manufacturers become ‘dumb hardware’ manufacturers. It is necessary to constantly update [the car's] database to allow Google control of the road features. That is not something that car manufacturers could implement in the next few years.”
The most problematic aspect of autonomous driving in the United States is that it is only currently legal on public roads in the state of Nevada. Shashua estimates that the beneficial aspects of such systems will encourage other states to allow and encourage their deployment. However, he does admit that computers today cannot yet completely replace human rational thinking. “Some intersections that have no traffic-lights require the driver to ‘force’ another car to slow down and let them cross. A computer would not do that and you might find yourself waiting for hours for the car to cross the intersection.”
Israel will encourage driver-support systems in 2013
Shashua’s optimism is partly due to the growing regulation of driver-assistance-systems in Europe and the US. The American National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) now requires that manufacturers put a sticker on showroom cars, which display whether or not it has an alarm for driver assistance.
In Europe, the EuroNCAP organization, which rates European cars for safety, is also adding new regulations. Starting in 2014, a manufacturer who wishes to get the full five-star safety rating will be required to install automatic breaking systems for safe distance-keeping on at least half the cars from a certain model. The 50 percent rate will increase each year and in 2016 the criteria will also include automatic breaking systems to prevent hitting pedestrians.
Israel will also introduce regulations to encourage the installment of driver-assistance systems in 2103 and the Israeli tax authorities will offer perks for cars equipped with such systems. However, the amount in question, up to NIS 2,250 ($590), has caused disappointment in the Israeli automotive market. “NIS 2,000 covers a substantial amount of the system’s cost and the price will drop as manufacturing grows,” insists Shashua, “an importer will install a system for NIS 1,800 since it’s a negligible amount for a system that has great value for the customer. This could lead to a dramatic change.”
Mobileye currently supplies BMW, Volvo, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Citroen and Mitsubishi with systems. The list will get even longer next year with Audi, Toyota and Chrysler joining the group.