We hear plenty about Google’s self-driving cars. They’re completely autonomous: Once you’ve plugged in your destination, you can, in theory, read or take a nap while the car drives. But Google’s cars are experimental. You can’t buy one.
What we hear less about are the self-driving cars that you can buy today. So far, they’re not fully autonomous, like Google’s. You’re required to keep at least one hand on the wheel while driving. In this regard, they’re strictly a stopgap between today’s cars and the fully self-driving models of 2020 or so.
The main things these cars can’t do on their own: making turns and changing lanes. (The one exception: With a $2,500 software upgrade, recent Tesla S models can now change lanes automatically when you turn on your turn signal on a highway).
But today’s cars can automatically steer (to stay in the lane), accelerate, brake, and park, either parallel or back-in.
Last week, Yahoo Autos invited me to join their judging panel for the Yahoo Autos Ride of the Year competition. Over the course of several days in Detroit, we tested, drove, and discussed 22 new 2016 car models.
Yahoo Autos will reveal the results in November. But I was so amazed by the degree of sophistication in these cars’ self-driving features, I thought I’d write up my reactions now.
The features here are available only on expensive cars, as an expensive option; they usually require an options package that costs around $2,000. They’ll inevitably trickle down to more affordable cars over time.
Adaptive Cruise Control
Cruise control has been around for years: You turn it on, and the car maintains a speed that you’ve set, so you don’t have to keep the gas pedal pressed all the time.
In retrospect, it’s amazing that this feature ever became standard. If you think about it, it’s dangerous. The car is accelerating blind. If you’re not careful, you’ll plow right into a car that’s slowed or stopped ahead of you.
But adaptive cruise control is very different. Now, your car watches the car ahead. It still tries to maintain your chosen highway speed (say, 65 miles an hour), but slows down as necessary to avoid hitting a car ahead of you—and then speeds back up again automatically.
The car’s ability to “see” ahead of it lies in a bulky box behind the rear-view mirror or built into the front grille, depending on whether it’s laser- or radar-based.
So how much of a gap does your car leave between you and the guy ahead of you? That’s up to you. A control on the steering wheel lets you cycle between three degrees of separation distance.
Adaptive cruise control is fantastic and very polished. I let a 2016 Honda CR-V drive itself almost all the way to the Detroit airport, and the thing never missed. Once, a car in front of me stopped short. The Honda braked hard and fast, yet without a sudden jerk. Collision avoided.
On most cars, you can use adaptive cruise control only over, for example, 40 miles an hour. A few, though, offer something truly mind-blowing: a similar feature that works all the way down to zero miles an hour.
This feature has various names—on the Volvo XC90, for example, it’s called Pilot Assist; on the Mercedes S-class it’s called Stop-N-Go Pilot. But the idea is the same in each case: The car can drive itself when you’re inching along in stop-and-go traffic. It’s cruise control for traffic jams.
This is another prize-winning feature. Nothing can completely take the frustration out of traffic. But knowing that your car is handling the brake and accelerator, smoothly and efficiently, at least makes it feel like someone (or something) is on your side.
With one press of a button on the steering wheel, these cars can do something else rather amazing: They can stay in the current lane. If you start to drift outside of the lines, they either alert you, steer automatically back into the lane, or both. (On the Audi TT and Ford Edge, the steering wheel vibrates in your hands to get your attention, for example.)
This feature isn’t as rock-solid as the adaptive cruise stuff. A couple of times, the Volvo drifted over the white line at the right side of the road without correcting itself. (This was a deserted rural Michigan road. The white line was clear enough to me, but the problem may have been that there wasn’t much pavement to the right of the white line.)