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Test drive: Continental showcases highly automated car

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Acme — Continental Automotive’s highly automated vehicle can handle stop-and-go traffic, highway cruising and steering and even slow down and maneuver safely around a tree cutting crew.

The supplier’s second-generation automated vehicle, in testing for the past year, doesn’t look any different than a typical black Chrysler 300C.

But this one is filled with technology including a long-range radar, four short-range radars in the car’s corners, four small surround-view cameras, plus one camera with two eyes attached to the windshield that look ahead for everything from pedestrians to trees or objects in the roadway. The technologies help the vehicle detect blind spots, automatically brake and restart in highway traffic jams, and cruise and steer at highway speeds.

It’s semi-autonomous and automated driving technology that suppliers and automakers such as Continental are developing and fine-tuning now that will roll out in new vehicles over the next several years.

“I know the car has everything under control,” said demonstration driver Ibro Muharemovic, Continental’s head of advanced engineering. Continental is demonstrating its vehicle during the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars here. “It sees everything around me, it sees everything in front of me and it’s able to proactively, not reactive, but proactively avoid anything that’s happening.”

A demonstration drive proved him correct Monday as the 300C drove us along U.S. 31 in Acme, a 45-mph road.

The aftermath of a fierce storm that hit the Traverse City area Sunday, which uprooted and toppled over trees and knocked out power across the area, left obstacles on the road during the demo drive.

At times, Muharemovic would say he was taking control of the vehicle, especially to navigate traffic lights and intersections that had no power. That wasn’t because the car wouldn’t recognize the light being out, but because of other drivers — many of whom flew through intersections without stopping.

A crew had set up in the right lane with a sign indicating the lane was closed to allow a front-end loader to clear a fallen tree. The 300C handled it fine and slowed down and steered out of the crew’s path.

The inside of the car looks pretty ordinary except for a light bar along the dash that lights up different colors to help designate the mode the vehicle is in. When it’s blue, the vehicle is operating in automated mode and Muharemovic would take his hands off the wheel and foot off the pedal. There are also cameras in the car looking at the driver. In the future, technology cameras will help determine how attentive the driver is.

There are also a couple of screens, one with GPS and information on the speed limit and another that shows a camera view in front of the vehicle. Sensors in blue and green indicate cars and objects next to the vehicle and in front of it.

“Continental’s automated driving vehicle has been developed to assist the driver in keeping all occupants safe by avoiding accidents,” Samir Salman, CEO for Continental in North America, said in a statement. “Approximately 95 percent of all road accidents involve some human error.”

Continental has been testing and developing automated driving since 2006 and previously tested a first-generation Volkswagen Passat. Continental also has test vehicles in Germany and Japan.

It also has another Chrysler 300C that is an architecture study and not for the road. The Chrysler 300C highly automated vehicle only has been tested in Michigan but Muharemovic said Continental is planning a cross-country trip this year.

The supplier hopes to achieve three milestones as it tests and develops vehicle technology:

■Low-speed, partially automated driving technology dubbed traffic jam assist, which will be deployed beginning on some 2016 automakers’ vehicles.

■Highly automated driving by 2020, which would let a car drive itself on a highway

■A fully autonomous vehicle by 2025 which wouldn’t require the driver to pay full attention to the road.

Automakers and suppliers also are working to develop driverless technology.

General Motors Co., for example, is developing what it calls Super Cruise, an advanced driver-assist technology that will debut on a 2017 Cadillac. GM said the car will be able to drive itself on highways at full speed or in stop-and-go traffic.

Continental has tested the 300C for more than 47,000 miles, many logged by Muharemovic. He said he often takes the vehicle home, driving along Interstate 75 and M-59 from Auburn Hills to Shelby Township.

Muharemovic said he uses his 30-minute to 45-minute commute to check and answer emails. Other times, he engages in a conversation with a passenger.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “I can trust the car to drive.”

At one point, in stop-and-go traffic where the car was in control, Muharemovic pulled out his cellphone and showed photos he took of Sunday’s approaching storm over East Grand Traverse Bay, as the car continued to stop, inch forward and stop again.

He also said the technology has a safety benefit, too, and he’s not stressed like some drivers are in traffic jams.

“If I’m not aggravated, if I’m not agitated as we’re doing this, then I don’t have to worry about causing an accident and I don’t have to worry about the people next to me cutting me off because all of that is handled,” he said.

Muharemovic said the car’s architecture has redundancies to ensure safety and function in case a driver does not react to warnings to take control, such as having two brake controllers.

Fully autonomous driving still faces lots of industry challenges such as insurance liability and other challenges, such as snow. Muharemovic said the current fully automated system will not work when the roadway is covered in snow, but works when it’s raining.

“As long as we can see the road and road environment, the car is going to be working,” he said.

mburden@detroitnews.com