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Audi designing future safety tech to act politely when taking control

Aki Sugawara
February 14, 2014

It was only a couple years ago that collision detection tech was reserved for luxury yachts like a Mercedes, and out of reach for the masses. Yet today, such driver’s assistance features have filtered down to mainstream rides like a Honda Accord. And as they get more sophisticated, automakers push the envelope in not only how much the car intervenes, but also in how comfortable drivers are entrusting their well-being to the binary hands.

For example, the newest EyeSight (camera-based) system from Subaru will hit the brakes when it senses an imminent collision at 30 mph, up from 19 mph. It's a matter of time before such software can intervene at freeway speeds.

Audi approached the issue with a different tack, as I experienced in Audi Urban Future Initiative (AUIA) demo last month. The company showcased the fruits of its collaboration with UC San Diego and USC, promising a suite of advancements that include predicting when parking spots become available, anticipating traffic jams through analyzing traffic flow data, and a heads-up display that monitors blind spots. Audacious aims aside, what was most promising was what the Audi A6 test car didn’t do — scream and throw a tantrum when it thought the driver was doing something wrong.

The car was equipped with Driver Attention Guard, which consisted of a pair of inconspicuous cameras facing the driver that detected eye movement (for now, the system won’t work if you’re rocking a pair of Ray Bans). When the system senses the driver’s attention wasn’t on the road, it not only disabled the gas pedal, but also prevented the car from wandering out of the lane — automatically activating adaptive cruise control and gently slowing to a stop as the car in front hit the brakes. It did all that while only flashing a warning in the dash’s digital display. For executing such series of complex calculations, the A6 seemed calm, and without the bleeping cacophony that itself could become a distraction.

That’s a welcome change. In some cars, such as the Subaru Legacy and Chevrolet Malibu, I shut off the collision systems in frustration of their loud, false warnings, or in their cynicism of how they judge my driving. While the Subaru EyeSight system is effective, it’s quick to beep, even in normal, conservative driving. Granted, in a Chevrolet Equinox you can change the sensitivity of its Forward Collision Alert (FCA), but its owner’s manual nonetheless declares “unnecessary alerts” from other objects such as shadows as “normal operation.” Call me antiquated, but frantic beeps shouldn’t be the norm.

Keeping with the non-obtrusive experience, for blind-spot monitoring the A6 relied on a heads-up display that tracked the movement of nearby cars, with yellow lines indicating that you may need to speed up to change lanes, or red showing that the lane is unavailable. It didn’t need to jar your ears into reacting to cars like a fire drill, because the Audi was continually relaying what’s happening in the surroundings, and assuming you’d be paying attention to the road ahead.

Hence, the bigger innovation behind AUIA wasn’t so much the tech driving the experience, but the psychology underlying it. As a more analog driver, assistance features that don’t nag or feel intrusive are a driver-assisting future I can get behind.