For the longest time, humans have been automating processes to make life both easier and safer. On cars, these can be modern safety systems such as forward collision warning on a high-performance BMW i8 Coupe, or convenience systems such as the automatic transmission on a Nissan Rogue crossover. Either way, they have changed the automotive landscape and taken over tasks that were previously done manually, making driving easier and safer. In fact, automated safety systems such as stability control have become standard equipment and we can no longer imagine life without them.
Taking over manual gear changes via an automatic transmission has been with us for well over half a century, but the autonomous car is still in its infancy. BMW admitted recently that achieving level 5 autonomy will be difficult at best. There is no doubt that we are heading towards full automation, but we still don’t know when we’ll get there. Currently, only Honda has put a level 3 autonomous vehicle on the roads – the Japan-only Honda Legend.
Levels 4 and 5 are quantum leaps ahead and will be very difficult to implement, not to mention dramatically increasing a car’s MSRP. At this level, several configurations of sensors and radar scanners have to be designed into the vehicle to be fully aware of its surroundings, accurately detecting the nature and size of all objects in its immediate vicinity. There are six levels of autonomous driving:
- Level 0. Zero autonomy. The entire operation of the vehicle is handled by the driver with zero functions automated.
- Level 1. At least one driver-assistance feature must be present, able to control speed or steering, such as intelligent cruise control.
- Level 2. At least two driver-assistance features must be present, working together. Imagine our level 1 example, but with a lane-keeping-assist system added.
- Level 3. Vehicle operation is autonomous under very specific conditions, but the driver must be able to take over at any moment.
- Level 4. No driver is required, but certain conditions must be met.
- Level 5. No driver required. Possible to complete trips autonomously under any conditions on any road.
Today, vehicles are equipped as standard with an increasing number of driver-assistance features, and level 2 autonomy is now quite common. These features are no longer the preserve of executive cars and can be had as standard even on normal family models and are often optionally available even on the base model of a range. They are convenient and improve safety – and often even fuel economy. Here are a few of the most common ones:
- Anti-lock braking system (ABS), dynamic stability control, and hill-start assist.
- Backup camera (compulsory in the USA since 2018).
- Adaptive radar cruise control.
- Blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assist, and lane-departure warning.
- Front and rear cross-traffic alert.
- Low-speed emergency braking, forward-collision warning, and pedestrian/cyclist recognition.
- Automated parking.
- Trailer and crosswind stabilization.
- Drowsiness detection.
- High-beam assist.
- Night vision.
- Head-up display.
- Traffic-sign recognition
The dawn of the smart home has meant that more home functions can be automated than ever before. Just like an increasing number of new technologies is taking over some of our driving duties, we are depending on the latest tech to make life at home both safer and more convenient too. Such systems can include automated control of, among others:
- Entertainment systems
- Blinds and curtains
- Home security and alarm systems
- Access control
Besides making life easier in the home, these systems also greatly assist to improve the quality of life of disabled and elderly people. By taking over some of the jobs and performing them automatically, these people can maintain a measure of independence and improve their safety by having automated monitoring systems, timers, and alerts update and notify kin via the internet on their current safety and security status and alert them of any emergencies. Such systems can even include fall-prevention. The scope of such a system depends on the features needed and how much people are willing to pay for them; in addition to the previous features mentioned, these can also include:
- Video cameras
- Motion detectors
- Environmental controls
- Automatic timers
- Emergency-assistance features
Besides the obvious benefits in terms of safety and convenience that these home-automation systems can provide, they are also used to conserve energy. By having blinds and curtains controlled automatically throughout the day in conjunction with sensors detecting the angle and intensity of the sun’s rays, the optimal balance can be achieved in terms of admitting natural light and reducing the load on HVAC systems. Having home systems automated can also create the impression that people are at home, even though they are on holiday, reducing the likelihood of break-ins.
The Future Is Automatic
Once upon a time, we cranked our car windows up and down by hand and had to walk up to the TV to change the volume. Cars had carburetors, not engine-management systems, and their MPG figures were poor in comparison with modern cars’. A lot has changed since then and today more tasks than ever are taken out of human hands and done automatically by computers and machines. It might sound somewhat ominous, but a lot of redundancy is built into these innovations and while there is always a risk for malfunction and failures, as with any type of tech, these advancements have been far more beneficial to us than detrimental and have saved countless lives.