Leave the driving to your car © Diego Cervo/Shutterstock.com
Leave the driving to your car

For people with long daily commutes or who simply don’t like driving, a robotic car may seem like a sort of automotive nirvana. Instead of keeping their eyes locked on the road, drivers could one day kick back and let computer technology do the work.

Cars with technologies that automate the driving also might be a big safety upgrade. Driver error was a contributing factor in more than 90 percent of all vehicular crashes, according to a study released in 2006 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

Unfortunately, self-driving cars are probably a ways off; the NHTSA released a statement this year stating these cars weren’t ready for public roads, except for vehicle testing.

But there are plenty of technologies that can help human drivers guide their cars more easily and safely through their daily routines available today that may one day form the building blocks of a fully automated car, says Andrew Smart, director of society programs and industry relations for SAE International.

“We have some vehicles which have multiple sensors with capabilities — self-park, active cruise control, all these other elements,” Smart says. “It’s almost like engineering ‘join the dots’ because we have many sensors and many capabilities within the vehicle, and it’s now a case of how we can link them together that makes sense.”

Here are some of the most popular and advanced driver-assist technologies on the market today to help you until completely robotic cars make their way to your local dealership.

Adaptive cruise control

Adaptive cruise control © Hddigital/Shutterstock.com

Ever look away from the road for a second with the cruise control on only to find the driver in the car in front of you has hit the brakes, and you now have to slam on yours to avoid a crash? Active cruise control aims to avoid those types of tense moments, Smart says.

“Before, you’re hitting cruise control and it would continue and continue, no matter what, at that speed because that was the only parameter that was set,” Smart says.

On the other hand, adaptive cruise control uses radar to detect vehicles and other obstacles on the road ahead of you and throttle back your speed to maintain a safe distance if need be. In fact, some active cruise control systems can even apply the brakes to avoid an imminent crash, Smart says.

While driver-assist technologies like adaptive cruise control started out as a premium option on luxury vehicles, it’s gradually filtered down into more mass-market vehicles thanks to its popularity, says Jeremy Carlson, an analyst with IHS Global Insight.

“It is kind of a pattern with automotive options where first it is the high-priced option on some luxury vehicles, and then, as the production volumes increase and more people get them, the prices fall, and that makes them more appealing,” Carlson says.

Collision avoidance and mitigation systems

Collision avoidance and mitigation systems © Snvv/Shutterstock.com

Collision avoidance systems take much of the same hardware used in active cruise control and use it for a different purpose — avoiding collisions in all types of day-to-day driving.

Much like adaptive cruise control, these systems scan the road ahead for obstacles. But instead of being used only when turned on at highway speeds, these systems are constantly operating and may sound alarms, boost brake sensitivity, and tighten seat belts to help prevent or reduce the effects of a collision.

Some systems can take even more drastic actions, including applying a vehicle’s entire braking power to avoid a crash, Carlson says.

“It goes from really just an enhanced kind of cruise control braking, where you are still at speed and you are just kind of maintaining a safe distance, to actually kind of the safety-critical braking,” Carlson says.

That’s an important distinction, says David Good, director of the Transportation and Research Center at Indiana University. Unlike active cruise control, which is intended as a convenience, the kinds of calculations and decision-making these systems have to do to work effectively are “orders of magnitude” more complex, Good says.

As a result, automakers have been a little more cautious about rolling out collision avoidance systems that give significant control over the car’s controls to a computer.

“Yes they are out there, but these are vehicles that are hard to get,” Good says. “My guess is the companies are being a little cautious about distributing this technology.”

Night vision systems

Night vision systems © l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock.com

Nighttime is statistically one of the most dangerous times to drive. According to government statistics, 49 percent of fatal crashes happen at night even though much more driving is actually done during the day. Overall, you’re 1.6 times more likely to get into a crash at night, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

High-end carmakers such as Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW now offer driver-assist technologies that can give drivers an edge to combat the visibility problems that make driving at night more dangerous.

Most of them involve a cluster of infrared sensors and cameras on the car’s front end that project an enhanced view of the road in front of the vehicle, which together with shape-recognition software can help pick out pedestrians and other road obstacles and highlight them on a small screen.

At this point, night vision systems are still expensive options on extremely expensive cars. But the cost may be worth it if it can prevent the cost and potential injury of a late-night accident, Carlson says.

“It is an application that, even though it is expensive and has maybe limited utility timewise, there is still a significant kind of safety gain that could be there,” he says.

Self-parking systems

Self-parking systems © Photo Intrigue/Shutterstock.com

Parallel parking is one of Americans’ least favorite driving chores. Nearly a third of American drivers admitted in a 2009 Harris Interactive poll that they try to avoid parallel parking whenever possible.

A number of automakers, including Ford and Audi, have responded by offering optional active parking assist systems. These systems use sensors to measure and identify spaces that are big enough for the car to safely fit into. Once a driver selects a space they want, they put the car in park, allowing the car to take control of the wheel and back the car into the spot.

Like active cruise control, this feature is more of a convenience feature than a safety feature, with most systems requiring drivers to keep control over the gas and braking while the car steers, Carlson says.

That little bit of control, coupled with the low speeds involved, may explain why car buyers are gravitating to a feature that can seem eerie at first, he says.

“Because it is at low speeds, I think it tends to be a little bit less of a shock to some people to let their car do this,” Carlson says. “It is one of the first baby steps where you are seeing consumers kind of relinquish control.”

Lane-keeping assist

Lane-keeping assist © Corepics VOF/Shutterstock.com

One of the simplest chores a driver has to do is stay within his or her lane, but whether it’s because of distraction or fatigue, lane drifting causes many accidents on American roads every year.

To combat the problem, several automakers have introduced lane-keeping-assist options that alert drivers when they drift out of their lanes and potentially into other cars or off the road.

“It has a camera that detects what it thinks of as being the edge of the lane that you’re in, and if you do something like try to change lanes without having your turn signal on, it gives you a warning,” Good says.

Some systems take that a step further, actually moving the steering wheel to direct the car back into your lane.

But, there’s a problem, Good says. “Most people find it incredibly annoying, because it’s giving you all these warnings about things you really intend to do.”

That can lead drivers to turn the systems off, which limits their effectiveness in preventing accidents, Good says.

Drivers may also come to depend too much on the technology, becoming more careless about texting and other distractions because they assume the system will warn them if they start to wander, Good says.

“They all come with that kind of a warning,” Good says. “This is not designed to replace driving.”