Just as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its 2015 Most Wanted List topped by driver distraction, global automakers have launched a new breed of connected cars certain to disrupt the marketplace.
NTSB is stepping up its call for more education, regulation, enforcement and technology as a way to decrease driver distraction and increase mass transit safety. While the automotive and IT industries are in tandem with the agency's priorities, newly launched high-tech driving and safety systems could be more than a remedy to today's traffic ills.
In the 2015 model year, passenger vehicles are equipped with connectivity and integrated dashboards that operate more like smartphones. There also are a variety of new automated safety systems designed to be backups for distracted drivers.
Yet to be seen is whether this combination of connectivity and automation will really combat driver distraction, which is increasingly a cause of accidents and deaths even in the most strictly regulated transportation modes, such as school buses.
New Automated Safety for the Road
Student transportation professionals have theoretically discussed collision-avoidance systems, but the technology is already here in passenger vehicles. A look at those options provides a glimpse at potential developments for what is already the nation's safest vehicle for students to ride in: the yellow school bus.
For the U.S. market, the 2015 Honda CR-V is coming out with an optional suite of driver-assistance features powered by Honda Sensing, which received a top safety pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The technologies include a collision mitigation braking system, forward collision warning and a lane keeping assist system.
Honda's sensor fusion technology integrates with a windshield-mounted camera and front grille-mounted radar system to identify multiple collision scenarios, including ones involving pedestrians. In these situations, the car will trigger warnings, and in some cases, put on an emergency brake.
The 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe mixes in safety technologies, using integrated cameras and radar sensors to warn drivers of potential risks. A rear-vision camera is now standard on all models. Optional is a crash imminent braking system, which works with sensor alerts for blind spots, lane changes, cross-traffic behind the vehicle and forward collisions.
Toyota has new collision mitigation technology in the works this year, and it may be across the automaker's line up by the 2018 model year. Its technology also triggers an automatic brake if the driver ignores the initial warning of an oncoming collision.
In Europe, the 2015 Ford Mondeo offers an optional feature for pre-collision assistance with pedestrian detection. The system also alerts the driver to an imminent collision, but should the driver not respond, it will brake automatically or come to a complete stop if necessary. Yet to come to Ford's U.S. cars or commercial vehicles, the company is continuing its research.
"There's no reason why this technology can't be in commercial vehicles," said Aaron Mills, technical expert who works with driver assist controls in Ford's electrical engineering department. "A future application for school buses could be a life-saver when navigating around kids (walking) with headphones on."
On the Road to More Automation
The long-term intention of advanced sensing and connectivity appears to be the creation of wholly autonomous vehicles that will interact on a global network of cyber-infused highways.
Concept vehicles and pilot projects demonstrated at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, as well as at the Los Angeles and Detroit auto shows, look like the stepping-stones for such a radical transformation.
"It will not mean the end of mobility, rather a mobility Internet that leads to greater efficiency, flexibility and safety. The world won't be accident free in 2050, but accidents will become very rare, with far fewer fatalities than today," predicted John DeCicco, professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute and School of Natural Resources and Environment.
Virtually every car manufacturer has reported plans for automated systems on vehicles with distinct capabilities: connectivity, intuitive user interfaces, seamless updates and high-powered, energy-efficient performance. Some automakers already have put rubber to the road with measurable results.
The Audi A7 project demonstrates how a semi-autonomous vehicle looks and operates in current road conditions. The Swedish auto company recently saw one of these vehicles successfully complete a 560-mile trip from California's Silicon Valley to Las Vegas, where worldwide journalists were standing at the finish line during the CES in January.
The key to A7's autonomous driving is sensing, including 360-degree vision, bumper-to-bumper lasers and a supercomputer that constantly calculates road possibilities and reactions. It also allows for drivers to take control when encountering more difficult driving conditions.
Also on the auto show circuit is the Mercedes-Benz F-015, a self-driving concept vehicle that runs on a hybrid drivetrain. A more evolved conceptual model resembles a cocoon equipped with four rotating lounge chairs, where occupants can sit face-to-face while the car does all the driving.
For its autonomous vehicle project, Google reportedly is seeking automotive partners to help bring the concept to market within the next five years. The company is preparing to launch a city-street testing project as well as production in Metro Detroit.
IHS Automotive forecasts total worldwide sales of self-driving cars will grow from nearly 230,000 in 2025 to 11.8 million in 2035 — 7 million SDCs with both driver control and autonomous control, plus 4.8 million that have only autonomous control. In all, there should be nearly 54 million self-driving cars in use globally by 2035.
Big questions remain, such as: How will governments regulate connected and autonomous vehicles? And how many of them will be school buses?