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Cruisin’ down the highway…

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22/10/2019
 

Continental is working on an autonomous driving system that promises to enhance both safety and comfort and will take stress-free highway cruising to the next level. In what follows, Oliver Fochler, System Lead Engineer Automated Driving at Continental, explains the benefits of the innovative “Cruising Chauffeur” system – and why it requires a camera that monitors the driver.

Oliver Fochler, born 1981, is System Lead Engineer in the ADAS business unit (Automated Driving Systems). He holds a PhD in Physics and is responsible for developing driver assistance systems, with a special focus on automated driving. His current project is the Cruising Chauffeur. Photo: Continental

 

Oliver Fochler, you’re helping Continental to develop the Cruising Chauffeur system, which is designed to support automated highway cruising. Thinking back to the first test drive, what was it like driving down the highway and suddenly taking your hands off the wheel – weren’t you nervous? Surely, manual steering is a hard habit to break?

I wouldn’t really say nervous – after all I did help to develop this system. (laughs) And of course, before the first trip out on the highway I’d already clocked up quite a bit of mileage on our test tracks. But you’re quite right. Driving along a busy highway and suddenly being asked by a computer voice to take your hands off the steering wheel – that was definitely an unusual experience and rather special. And remember, we’re using the test vehicles on highways in the Frankfurt area, including the busy A5. So this is a really stiff challenge for our system and means that as a test driver I have to concentrate hard the whole time, even though I’m being chauffeured. After all, the system is still only at the development stage.

 

Do drivers on the A5 need to be worried that an out-of-control test vehicle could cut in front of them at any moment?

Absolutely not! Our system was tested and optimized in many, many miles of testing at secure test sites before it was allowed out in real highway traffic. Now we are at the stage where the test driver’s role has switched to that of an attentive passenger – albeit sitting in the driver’s seat – who spends the journey assessing and monitoring how the system functions across a full range of driving scenarios. We stay totally focused during these tests and are always ready to take over manually at a moment’s notice. Come to think of it, this combination of the assistance system plus an attentive and specially trained test driver probably means there is less risk from our test car than from most of the other vehicles on the road.

You want to overtake? Just sit back and leave it to Continental’s Cruising Chauffeur assistance system. Photo: Continental

 

What exactly does the Cruising Chauffeur offer by way of functionalities? One aspect of automotive driving that auto industry managers are always getting so excited about is how we will be able to write e-mails while we’re on the move…

With the system activated, it’s perfectly possible for me to sit back and attend to other matters, like reading or writing an e-mail. But it is important to remember that, for the time being, the Cruising Chauffeur is a system designed for use on highways, not for downtown rush-hour traffic. For now, those sort of traffic conditions would still be too complex. What we can say is that by the time the system arrives on our roads, which we expect to be sometime within the next five years, the Cruising Chauffeur will be perfectly capable of taking over the full range of highway driving tasks. It will keep an eye on all other road users, and will be able to evaluate critical situations and react appropriately, for example if someone suddenly pulls out in front of the host vehicle.


How does the system work?

The basic idea is really quite simple. Sensors acquire information about the road and other road users and supply it to a central control unit, where it is used for planning vehicle responses and maneuvers. When it comes to the details, of course, things are more complicated. The Cruising Chauffeur is equipped with approximately 20 sensors in total. That includes around ten cameras, up to nine radar systems, plus laser and lidar sensors. Huge volumes of data are generated, including camera images which must be processed within fractions of a second. A very powerful computing module is required to manage this vast amount of data, and translate it into real-time decisions. The driving maneuvers, by comparison, are relatively simple: acceleration, steering and braking. To process the camera data, we use the very latest techniques in neural networks and Artificial Intelligence. You see, the camera images are not just recorded but also interpreted − the system has to be able to tell what the images mean and understand what it is seeing, so to speak. 

The system warns drivers in good time when they need to resume manual steering. Photo: Continental

 

Cars are getting smarter, but do they have any sort of feel for potential hazards? Can they sense danger in the same way that human drivers, with their long years of driving experience, can instinctively sense that a critical situation could be imminent?

Very much so. Before anyone buys a vehicle with the Cruising Chauffeur installed they will want to know for sure that the system can cope with any critical situation. This is why we do so many miles of testing beforehand. Every conceivable real-world driving scenario must be modeled in the system, such as a trailer or a truck shedding its load, an accident suddenly happening right in front of my vehicle, or somebody changing a tire on the hard shoulder. There are so many things that could potentially happen and the system must be designed to address all these scenarios, however unlikely.

 

The driver is monitored by an interior camera. What is this camera really tracking, bearing in mind that a computer is doing the actual driving?

This camera is very important. Its job is to assess how able the driver would be to respond to a takeover request. Let’s assume that the vehicle has identified a situation which it’s not capable of handling on its own, meaning that the driver must now intervene. Drivers are warned a few seconds in advance, and must then be ready to retake control. The job of the camera is to estimate how much lead time the driver needs. For example, the system will not allow drivers to go to sleep, for now at least, but will allow them to read e-mails on the vehicle infotainment system. The camera, and the system behind it, must be able to distinguish between these different situations. If the camera registers that the driver’s eyes have been closed for an extended period of time, the system will issue a warning.

The test drivers – pictured is development engineer Oliver Fochler – are specially trained before they take the system out in real-world traffic. At the end of each test drive, the driver reads off the data and studies it. Photo: Continental

 

Can customers be persuaded to accept this kind of camera system? Do drivers really want to feel that they are under constant surveillance?

Obviously, these are concerns which we take seriously. But there are two important things to bear in mind here: First of all, driver-monitoring cameras are already making their way into modern vehicles. Experience has shown that this improves safety. For assistance systems such as drowsiness detection, which prevents accidents caused by a microsleeping driver, a camera is indispensable. And I should point out that our system does not store these images long-term. The Cruising Chauffeur simply evaluates information – such as the direction of the driver’s gaze – at a given point in time. I personally would not be unduly concerned about being watched by a driver-monitoring camera, given the extra safety we can achieve with such systems. And to reiterate: It’s not as if there’s somebody sitting at a monitor somewhere looking at these images. The system is not designed for that and could not be used that way.

 

What sort of situations would the Cruising Chauffeur not be able to cope with?

One very simple example would be when the vehicle reaches the end of the highway. This is what we call a system boundary. The Cruising Chauffeur is only intended – initially at least – for operation on highways, where traffic scenarios are less complex than in cities. If the highway becomes a main road, for example, then the system boundary is reached. The vehicle must be able to detect this and inform the driver that this is a situation that goes beyond the system’s operating capabilities.

A sight that could become quite normal in the near future: The driver sits back and relaxes, leaving the vehicle to steer its way automatically through the highway traffic. Photo: Continental

 

Does the average driver actually have any desire to be chauffeured? The discussion around speed limits in Germany, for example, suggests that any kind of encroachment on the personal freedom of the driver can often provoke negative reactions.

Nobody will be forced to use the Cruising Chauffeur. This is an optional function which can be purchased and activated by anyone who values big gains in safety and comfort. In our experience, however, there is a lot of interest in systems that reduce driving stress and boost safety. And while I too am one of those people who enjoy driving and wouldn’t want my car to be chauffeuring me around all day long, there are many situations where I would actively welcome this – for example in slow-moving rush-hour traffic. The sales figures for assistance systems back this up. More and more vehicles are being equipped with radar and camera systems that are designed to improve safety and comfort, thus reducing the risk of critical situations. There is indeed customer acceptance for these features.

 

Will the Cruising Chauffeur make the highways safer?

We would claim that the Cruising Chauffeur is significantly safer than a human driver, and that it reduces risks in a wide range of critical situations, contributing to a reduction in highway accidents. Even at this stage the system is already making our roads safer, despite not yet being on the market. That’s because we can already apply the results of our development work on the Cruising Chauffeur in existing active safety systems. These existing systems also use cameras, radar systems and the associated software. The more experience is fed into these systems, the safer they become. There’s no question about it: The Cruising Chauffeur is an important module in Continental’s Vision Zero strategy for a world without crashes.

Automated highway cruising: Highways in the Frankfurt area are one of the locations chosen by Continental for testing its Cruising Chauffeur. Photo: Continental