When I was recently in the US, I had the opportunity to drive a Toyota RAV4 that came equipped with semi-autonomous driving features. A welcome opportunity to experience first hand over a few hours in dense metropolitan areas and overland routes the current state of driver assistance technology.
In addition to the standard cruise control feature, the car came equipped with a distance control feature to vehicles in front. In other words, on can set the cruise control to a certain speed and the distance control feature automatically accelerates, slows down and breaks to keep a safe distance. In addition, the car was equipped with a lane centering feature, i.e. it automatically steers to keep in the chosen lane.
At first it was a strange to feel the car not only accelerating and decelerating but actively breaking on its own, even to a complete standstill when approaching traffic jams. Even stranger was the feeling that the steering wheel turned on its own. Nevertheless, one gets used to it pretty quickly.
Driving becomes a lot more relaxed this way. One can take one’s hands of the steering wheel but not for more than 10 seconds. Any longer and a warning sound goes off, which, if ignored, triggers the termination of all automatic driving features and and an even stronger warning tone. However, what is possible, is to take a step back mentally from what I would call the ‘closed-loop control’ of the car, i.e actively monitoring the road and constantly making small corrections to stay in a lane. One still observes the road to be able to react quickly in case control has to be taken back, but in a somewhat more detached way. In an overland cruise I didn’t have to make any corrections or even touch the gas pedal or the break for over an hour at a time. Quite amazing! In metro areas, however, the lane assist and distance control features needed constant overrides, especially when the lane assistance software became confused by exits and to prevent the distance control feature from breaking late and too hard when approaching a traffic jam ahead. But even in such challenging environments with occasional overrides, it is a lot less stressful to drive than in fully manual mode.
All of this works great in countries with a speed limit and enough lanes so slow trucks don’t get in the way and no cars approaching from behind at much higher speeds that want to pass. So for German ‘Autobahns’, I have my doubt things would work that well.
So yes, I am very positively surprised and can see where this is going. But make no mistake this is a long way from fully autonomous vehicles that can navigate cities on their own.