Autonomous cars are the next big thing, but are they safe?

By Pritesh Ruthun Time of article published Jan 20, 2021

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JOHANNESBURG - Autonomous cars are set to be the next big thing in the motor industry. Over the past five years, $50 billion (R761 billion) has been poured into the race to develop autonomous driving technologies and, according to Allied Market Research, the global autonomous vehicle market is projected to be valued at $556.67 billion (R8.4 trillion) by 2026.

But one big question mark hangs over this sector of the motor industry: safety.

One of the reasons for the safety concerns is the fact that driverless cars will be so different from the cars with internal combustion engines that we live with today. We won’t be able to hear them coming – because they will be silent – and there will be no driver with whom to maintain eye contact.

As Mikael Ljung Aust, senior technical leader for collision avoidance functions at the Volvo Cars Safety Centre, explains, fellow road users have numerous – quite legitimate – concerns relating to autonomous cars. “For example, if you’re a cyclist and you’re coming up on an intersection alongside a car, you would probably be a little bit curious and wonder: does this car know I’m here or not? Because if I’m going straight and it’s turning, I’ll be in trouble,” he points out.

The only way to alleviate these concerns is to introduce some form of communication between cars and fellow road users. This can happen via a multitude of methods but two of the best are visuals and sounds. Both of these are being employed in Volvo’s autonomous 360c concept car.

Watch Aust explain how the cars of the future will need to communicate with each other in the video below:

“We’re using a light band along the sides to actually mark that the car has seen the road user,” Aust explains. “A little section alongside the cyclist will light up indicating that, ‘hello, cyclist. I’ve seen you. I’m aware. Don’t worry.’ The cyclists will become aware that they don’t need to slow down or be scared of the car”.

Ideally, visual displays such as this should go hand-in-hand with sounds.

“We’ve done a fair bit of interesting research which shows that people find it much easier to pick up on messaging when it’s communicated in two channels at the same time – such as sound and light.

“There is some almost behavioural or ancestral reflex in people that makes them jump or at least alert themselves if things happen in two channels at the same time. The thunder and lightning combination is one of those.

“We’re looking for visual patterns that enhance the sound patterns and vice versa. If you have an audio pattern that’s like a sound that’s slowing down, you want the visuals to mimic that. So, they will go faster and then go slower as the sound slows down. And if you place the visuals in a good place (on the 360C, this light band is fairly high on the vehicle), then it’s bright – meaning you can see it in daylight. Then you get a good reinforcement of the sound signals and vice versa. The two in tandem is really the key,” Ljung Aust reveals.

These two channels will be employed in self-driving vehicles of the future, meaning that – while they will have neither a driver nor an internal combustion engine – they will still be safe.

Visit the Volvo Cars website for more information on how the brand is forging ahead in autonomous vehicle safety.

Drive360

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