Continental takes gradual route to self-driving cars

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Brimley, Mich. — Continental AG is taking a more cautious approach to self-driving vehicles than some of its competitors.

Automakers like Ford Motor Co. and suppliers like Delphi Automotive have vowed to implement fully autonomous cars — without steering wheels or pedals — within the next five years. But the German-based supplier is taking a more gradual route with technologies that still require the driver to take over in certain cases.

Continental executives on Tuesday would only commit to a vague “2020s” timeframe for the rollout of its most advanced self-driving system, but the supplier has been testing such a vehicle on public roadways in Michigan and across the globe for years. Its most recent iteration — a car called the “Cruising Chauffeur” that can automatically accelerate, brake and change lanes at highway speeds — was shown as part of a technology showcase Tuesday at its test track here.

The supplier believes it can better perfect the systems by slowly implementing driver-assist technologies like automatic braking and pedestrian detection before jumping to full autonomy. It says a more cautious rollout is preferred by customers who may not be familiar with high-tech self-driving systems.

“It’s really necessary to make the general consumer comfortable with this technology,” said Jeremy Tuggle, engineering manager of systems concepts, systems and technology chassis and safety division. “If you went from nothing to fully autonomous, the typical consumer wouldn’t be comfortable. If we can go in steps, people will more likely adopt this technology.”

Continental’s views reflect one of two emerging paths toward full autonomy.

On one hand, some say valuable information can be gained by the stepping-stone approach of implementing lower levels of autonomy and gradually working up. Others, like Ford and Delphi, argue that lower-level systems — think Tesla Motor Inc.’s Autopilot — are too risky because such technologies require humans to retake control of the car at a moment’s notice and could lead to misuse.

Continental’s “Cruising Chauffeur” will alert drivers to take control of the car with noises and warning lights in plenty of time, executives say. And they’re working on implementing eye-monitoring cameras that will notice if a driver’s eyes shut or they become distracted, so the car can alert the driver to regain focus.

“Continental is very focused on making sure we roll these technologies out in the safest way possible,” said Jeremy McClain, head of systems and technology, chassis and safety, Continental North America. “You have to do a whole lot of development. We focus on making sure the platform is robust and the architecture is fail-operational; that we always have a redundant solution in the vehicle.”

Redundancies are built throughout the car, whether it’s the cameras and radar sensors that work together, or an emergency-braking system coupled with an emergency steer-assist that both work together to help avoid last-minute crashes.

Among the technologies Continental demonstrated:

V2X: Vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. These alerts happen between two cars connected with Dedicated Short Range Communication sensors to provide data about vehicle speed, direction and braking.

The DSRC communication would complement radars and cameras and help cars “see” things that they can’t. For example, the DSRC could alert a car that another vehicle was stopped around a corner and caution it to brake; cameras and radar wouldn’t be able to see around that corner.

Road database: A crowd-sourced approach to creating real-time maps. Continental hopes to create a system that takes snapshots of the road using vehicle cameras by the cars driving on them. That information will be sent to a back-end server that can update the map as quickly as the next car travels down the same path. The hope is to create real-time views of roadways that show things like lane closures, downed power lines or other hazards. The alternative, Continental says, is waiting for months for dedicated mapping cars, like what Google Inc. uses for its Google Maps, to travel down the road and get new pictures.

Emergency steer-assist: This technology helps users avoid a crash when it’s too late to engage automatic emergency braking. When the system senses the driver suddenly swerve out of the way of an obstacle in the way, it engages electronic stability control to keep the car balanced. Without the system, the driver would run the risk of potentially over-steering or flipping the car if the turn was hard enough.

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