Driverless car tech gets serious at CES

CNN News Wire | 1/13/2014, 5:31 p.m.
The Detroit Auto show isn’t until Monday, but major car companies are showing off some of their more exciting car-tech ...

The Detroit Auto show isn’t until Monday, but major car companies are showing off some of their more exciting car-tech prototypes a week early at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

BMW and Audi unveiled their latest driverless car technology and conducted demonstration drives. Nevada is one of a few states where it’s legal to test drive autonomous cars, though it requires a person to sit in the driver’s seat at all times.

A preview of the latest driverless car tech

BMW added its highly active assist technology to a modified 2 Series Coupe. The car can slide into a controlled drift to demonstrate how precise the control systems are and how it can handle a critical situation. The company has posted a video showing it in action.

“It’s like the best test driver you have,” said Dr. Werner Huber, BMW project manager driver.

The car uses steering, breaking and throttle to control acceleration, deceleration and direction in very small, exact amounts. The demonstration is just one aspect of the technical building blocks required to make a self-driving car. There are also sensors, environmental modeling and decision and driving strategy technologies that BMW is working on. Those were not included on this particular test vehicle.

Early automated-vehicle prototypes from car makers, universities and Google looked like Frankenstein experiments, covered in obviously custom hacked hardware. Now the technology is getting smaller and the necessary sensors and cameras are shrinking to barely noticeable sizes.

Audi is particularly proud of decreasing the size of its computer systems, which previously filled the entire trunk of the car, into a box that’s mounted inside the glove compartment. The German car manufacturer demonstrated its Sport Quattro Laserlight concept car at CES.

Audi’s real advancement this year is the compact zFAS car computer. In the future, the Nvidia powered system could be used for key automated-driving tasks like traffic sign recognition, lane departure warnings and pedestrian spotting.

Size isn’t the only technical challenge. Dependability is also incredibly important for a computer system driving a car. You can’t reboot a vehicle while it’s hurtling down a highway at 60 mph.

“We can’t have these systems crash,” said David Anderson, Nvidia’s senior automotive solutions architect. “This is a safety critical application.”

Making it legal

Car makers agree that while there are many technical issues ahead, they may not be the most daunting obstacles self-driving cars face.

Autonomous driving features are at least seven to 10 years away from becoming commercially available. The technology inside the cars is developing fast, but the auto industry will need at least that much time to sort out a tangle of non-hardware and software issues to clear the way for the cars.

“The main problems are regulations and laws,” said Audi’s Heribert Braeutigam.

Various laws will have to be updated around the world to make it legal for automated cars to drive on the road. Car manufactures and suppliers are already forming working groups to address the topics and work with governments.