Driver-Assist and Autopilot Are Not the Same

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Sensors and cameras are now commonplace in vehicles to help drivers avoid accidents. By researching and understanding each of these features, it is essential to know what these alerts mean and how this technology can save your life.

With so many new features available and coming to market, Sam Abuelsamid, a principal analyst with Guidehouse Insights, joined in a recent Facebook Live to discuss the different types of driver-assist technology.

Sam Abuelsamid, Principal Analyst, Guidehouse Insights/Image Credit: Sam Abuelsamid

“There are a variety of different sensors and cameras being used on today’s cars. Most cars have a single camera facing forward, along with radar sensors,” Abuelsamid said. “Ultrasonic sensors are designed for parking to assist in letting you know when you’re getting too close. Some cars have more radar sensors in the front and rear, while others also have additional cameras. Since 2017, it’s been mandatory to have rear backup cameras. Some cars have cameras on the side, usually under the mirrors. New sensors are coming out that are next-generation imaging radar sensors that measure gap and speed.”

Let’s break down the different types of driver-assist technology:

Lane-Keeping Assist

Using a forward-facing camera behind the windshield on most new cars, the camera in this feature is looking for lane markings and steering. If the technology detects the car starting to drift, the basic version will alert the driver to pay attention. In more advanced systems, the car will steer to pull the driver back to the center of the lane.

“These systems are designed to keep you from running off the road,” Abuelsamid said. “If you’re changing lanes and using your turn signal, as you should, it won’t give you an alert, but if you don’t have your turn signal on, it will give you an alert. It doesn’t know if maybe you’re tired, not paying enough attention, or hitting a heavy crosswind.”

Forward Collision Alert

This technology is a step in the right direction towards avoiding a crash and uses the same forward-facing camera, he said.

A sensor detects if you are closing in too quickly in front of you, to things like a pedestrian or debris, and the car will slow the vehicle down and hopefully avoid the crash entirely,” Abuelsamid said.

Earlier versions of the forward collision alerts gave drivers a flashing yellow on their dash to say there is a risk of a crash. The technology is now enhanced with automatic braking.

“The lower your speed at the time of a collision, the less damage you’ll have,” he said. “This will at least help to mitigate a crash.”

Forward cameras are standard on most new vehicles today and are increasingly rolling out to new cars. Within the next couple of years, these cameras will be pretty much ubiquitous on every new car, Abuelsamid noted.

“Several years ago, automakers committed with the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration to implement automatic emergency braking on almost all new cars by 2022,” he said.

Adaptive Cruise Control

This next generation of cruise control uses radar sensors and cameras to measure the gap and speed of the car in front of you. The radar sensor will detect the slowing car and automatically slow the vehicle down. The adaptive cruise control will speed your car back up to maintain the set speed if that car speeds up.

Blind-Spot Monitoring

This tech was available for close to 20 years when Volvo first introduced it. Now it’s standard on many cars today, including Toyota, Ford, GM, and Stellantis. This monitors and uses corner radar sensors mounted on the car’s rear corners looking in the blind spot areas to detect if a vehicle is in that area. When you’re changing lanes, the sensors will have warning alerts embedded in the side mirrors if a car is in a blind spot. Newer generation technology shakes your seat or steering wheel to alert the driver.

“This is another great feature added for rear cross-traffic alerts,” he said. “When backing up in a parking lot, the car can use the same sensors to look down the aisle and let you know if anyone is approaching from either direction to give you an alert. In some cases, the technology could slam on the brakes to prevent you from backing up if it detects something.”

Heads-Up Display with Augmented Reality

The heads-up display has been around since the 1980s and has been used in aircraft for many decades. This type of display projects information from your dashboard onto your front window, like speed, turn signals, and navigation prompts.

“The augmented reality display goes a step further to project arrows to show you exactly where to make the turn,” Abuelsamid said. “It looks like it’s floating over the street for a better visual view. This makes it easier to navigate around unfamiliar places. It also uses cameras to detect pedestrians, and the AR HUD will highlight a pedestrian, so you’re more careful.”

Four-Wheel Steering

While some applications of four-wheel steering date back to the 1980s, this is starting to come back to the market, he said. Traditionally only a car’s front wheels do the steering. When you can steer using all four wheels, it can make the car more stable. The vehicle can be put in crab walk mode to almost have it move sideways.

“If you turn the wheel in opposite directions, you can steer tighter, which is good for turning radius to get into and out of parking spaces better, especially in bigger cars,” Abuelsamid said. “Four-wheel steering gives cars stability at higher speeds and better maneuverability at low speeds. It makes the most sense and can be a real benefit on trucks, SUVs, and larger cars.”

Night Vision

This tech uses infrared cameras to detect electromagnetic radiation outside our human vision. It can see in complete darkness where our eyes cannot catch anything, such as in rural areas with no streetlights or if you have poor eyesight, he said.

“Night vision can highlight pedestrians and animals because it detects temperature differences,” he said. “Like a deer running out in the road, night vision can help you to see the deer. And with augmented reality, the deer can be highlighted on your window for better visibility.”

The Difference Between Driver-Assist and Self-Driving Features

The driver-assist systems are designed to help the driver. The human is still in control of the vehicle. The system is designed with increased situational awareness to help with some tasks.

Automated driving, autonomous driving, or self-driving is designed to take over driving tasks from a human. The sensors and software make sense of the driver’s surroundings and drive the car without human interaction.

“Today, there are no vehicles that are autonomous or self-driving no matter what manufacturer calls it,” Abuelsamid said. “You’re in control of the vehicle. Many companies are developing self-driving cars like Waymo and Cruise. There are pilot programs doing self-driving deliveries. You can request a ride in Phoenix with a Waymo self-driving vehicle. But none of these are vehicles you can buy. Manufacturers are also working on automated systems like automated highway driving, but those are still quite a few years away.”

He cautioned that you’re still responsible for the vehicle if you get a car with some driver-assist and hands-free tech. Like GM’s Super Cruise, systems allow you to take your hands off while highway driving, but the system makes sure you’re still alert.

“If the technology detects you’re not looking at the road, it will alert you,” Abuelsamid said. “If you don’t react, the system will automatically start slowing the car down. Maybe you’ve had a heart attack or a stroke or fallen asleep. The technology can call 911 and provide a location for emergency services.”

Driver Assist vs. Driver Monitoring

In driver assist, all the sensors look outwards and look at the world around the car. The sensors are inside the car in driver monitoring, looking at your face. An infrared camera can see in the dark or through your sunglasses. If you’re drowsy or fall asleep, these systems can detect if you’re not alert enough. If you don’t react and do anything, the technology will bring the car to a stop, he said.

“In the Infrastructure bill just passed by Congress and signed by the president, one element in the bill directs the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration by 2026 to bring in regulation that protects against drunk driving and distracted driving,” Abuelsamid said. “These driver monitor cameras are most likely the best way to do that. If you’re impaired, ill, or tired, it can detect by the position of your head, where your eyes are looking, or if your eyes are closed, if this person cannot drive safely and the car needs to stop. By 2026 this will probably be standard on all new vehicles.”

Distracted driving is any activity, like talking on the phone or changing the radio, that distracts you from driving. Distracted driving causes 3,000 deaths a year and are accidents the NHTSA wants to avoid. Driver monitoring technology should help to take this number down. “We can have all the laws in the world saying you shouldn’t be on your phone, but there’s nothing to stop you,” Abuelsamid cautioned. “Distracted driving is a real issue, even dealing with your kids in the back seat. If we’ve got a fairly simple, low-cost solution like a driver monitoring system to detect and intervene, this will potentially have a huge impact on traffic fatalities.”

Connectivity Will Be Key

Cars first had connectivity through GM OnStar in 1996. Every manufacturer now has some connectivity using cellular radio, the same as your phone. He said it could get data from the cloud, map updates for navigation, and call for automatic 911 assistance.

“If you get in a crash and your car’s airbags go off, it will send somebody to help,” Abuelsamid said. “Now this connectivity technology is getting standard on almost all new cars, including Ford, Honda, Nissan, Toyota, etc. It can be an essential part of making driving safer for everyone.”

He said that all this driver-assist and driver-monitoring technology would help improve safety and driver’s awareness since we don’t have eyes in the back of our heads.

“With sensors, hopefully, drivers can make better decisions,” Abuelsamid said. “Systems can help augment what we’re doing. Systems branded like Teammate and Copilot can help you avoid hazards and crashes. But don’t rely on technology too much, though….”

Hayley Ringle

Hayley Ringle

Hayley Ringle has been an automobile enthusiast since her first motorcar love, a no-frills, air-cooled, orange 1976 VW Super Beetle. Hayley now enjoys driving her limited-edition Release Series 9 ride, an orange 2012 Scion XB, with vanity license plate HOTLAVA. Hayley’s fondness for cars stems from her dad’s love of British sports cars and her years working at an auto parts store while in college. She has written professionally for Phoenix-area newspapers for over 20 years, covering every subject imaginable, including Scottsdale’s car auctions and the Valley’s vehicle proving grounds. Her dream car is a Jaguar E-type roadster featured in the 1971 cult classic film “Harold and Maude.”