In the not too distant past, self-driving cars were up there with robot maids and video phones on the list of “things we see on sci-fi cartoons, but will probably never have.” There are different levels of autonomous vehicles, from those that help drivers with braking, acceleration, steering, and parking, to those that can drive themselves in certain conditions, to completely autonomous vehicles that have the ability to drive themselves anywhere. Self-driving cars that can take you from New York to Los Angeles while you nap or compose a symphony in the back seat are still a long ways off, but autonomous driving is improving every day, and finding new ways to use artificial intelligence to improve road safety and efficiency.
Two the most impressive cars with self-driving features are the Tesla Model S and the Volvo 90 series. In this head-to-head, we’ll take a look at their automation features, to help you determine which is best for you.
Greetings from Sweden: Volvo automation
For decades, Volvo has made a name in the industry as the safest vehicles on the market, with high marks for reliability. This focus on safety is part of the bedrock of “Intellisafe,” the assortment of Volvo’s active safety features that includes their automation features.
Think of Intellisafe and Volvo automation as a sort of supervised driving, a steady hand on the controls that gives you another set (or several sets) of eyes on the road.
Intellisafe includes adaptive cruise control which gauges the distance between you and the car in front of you, and makes sure you stay at a safe distance. The adaptive cruise control is part of Pilot Assist II, which might sound like a branch of the Swedish Air Force, but is actually the second generation of the automation feature which Volvo debuted in 2015. Pilot assist is no one trick pony – it includes a lane-keeping feature that uses cameras to track the lanes and will control the steering wheel if you start to drift out of your lane. Like other automated systems, it requires a big leap of faith in the pilot before you feel comfortable easing your hands off the steering wheel and letting it take over for you.
For further peace of mind, the City Safety package of Intellisafe detects if a pedestrian or cyclist jumps out in front of or behind you. It warns the driver and can even put the brakes on to avoid a collision. If you’re looking to solve even more headaches of city driving, the park assist feature does that – it parks for you and tells you when to brake. And let’s not forget about country folk – the same system that will warn you if a pedestrian jumps in front of your car in the city, will warn you of a deer up ahead on that backwoods switchback.
If you do a lot of night driving, there are two features that you’d probably love. Active High Beam Control allows you to keep your high beams on at all times, without worrying about oncoming traffic. The system detects a vehicle approaching from the opposite direction and automatically dims the part of the high beams that would bother the oncoming car. In addition, if you’re driving on too little sleep and start nodding off, the system will jolt you awake and prompt you to take a break and recharge.
The Tesla Model S has no intention of letting the Swedes hog the limelight, and this full-size car hosts a series of automation features that should make your life on the roads easier.
In October 2016, Tesla announced that all of its vehicles have incorporated full self-driving hardware to afford the vehicles “a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver,” the company said in a statement at the time.
What does this mean? Let’s take a look under the hood (and outside the car, in all directions - you get the idea). The Tesla 3 – like all other models – comes equipped with 8 surround cameras which provide 360-degree visibility around the car and up to 250 meters away. The car includes 12 ultrasonic sensors that work together with the cameras allowing the car to detect hazards long before they become a real threat.
The data from the cameras and sensors is crunched by an onboard computer which calculates road risks for you as you drive.
Out on the road, “dynamic” turning lights automatically adapt to twists and turns in the road to improve visibility and safety. Tesla has also touted the systems’ forward-facing radar, which it says has the ability to see through heavy rain, fog, and dust and even vehicles that are in front of driver.
What about the more direct, hands on assistance? Tesla’s enhanced autopilot adjusts the car’s speed to that of the traffic on the street at the time, will help you stay within your lane, and – this one may make you raise an eyebrow – will automatically change lanes without the driver instructing the vehicle to do so. The lane change feature means that when you’re tooling down the freeway, the Tesla will gauge which lane you need to be in to make the exit you need and will slow down and exit the freeway, before handing the controls back to the driver.
Tesla states that enhanced autopilot also means that the car can self-park and - unlike human valets - it won’t expect a tip. When you’re ready to leave, you can summon the car, which might remind you of KITT on “Knight Rider,” if you’re old enough.
Tesla also helps you with directions – or the lack thereof. Just get in and tell the car where to drive and it will be on its way. If you don’t say anything, it will look at your calendar and take you to whatever shows up as the next destination.
Other automation features that come standard with Tesla include automatic emergency braking, front collision warning, side collision warning, and auto high beams, which adjust the brights as required.
But Tesla and Volvo aren’t the only big names going into automation, far from it.
Luxury car maker Infiniti has implemented driverless tech in the Q Series, which comes equipped with steer-by-wire capability, as well as smart braking to slow you down when the car in front of you brakes. That’s pretty standard, but Infiniti can also supposedly see a couple of cars ahead to check which car is slowing everybody down, bringing to mind the “Car Periscope” first brought to the imagination of the public on “Seinfeld.” It also features direct adaptive steering control and a lane keeping feature.
Not to be left out, the Audi A series includes automation features befitting a company that has been a leader in the development of driver-less technology. Features include “traffic jam assist,” which allows for 15 seconds of hands-free driving at slower speeds. Audi also features side assist and rear cross traffic assist to help the driver take in their surroundings, as well as lane assistance, adaptive cruise control, and parking assistance.
Mercedes Benz has implemented automation in its S Class and E class vehicles. Both classes include steering and lane keeping assistance, as well as adaptive cruise control and hands-off steering.
If you put in an extra $3,600, BMW will throw in the active driving assistant in its flagship 7 series. It can gauge vehicle distances and help with steering if needed, and will also keep an eye out for pedestrians.
You don’t’ need to get a luxury car to have automation on hand. The Honda Civic includes “Honda sensing,” which provides adaptive cruise control, braking assistance, lane departure warning, and road departure mitigation, among other features.
Cadillac drivers have often been known to coast down the road, a single hand on the wheel almost as an afterthought. The new CT6 model will feature “Super Cruise,” automated technology that will gauge the driver’s eyes to make sure they’re not wandering too much from the road and on say, their smartphone. It can also disable the car or call for help if the driver is incapacitated somehow and provides a number of other basic automation features.
Last but not least, the Toyota Prius has thrown its fuel-efficient hat into the automation ring as well. The vehicle features a pre-collision system to protect you from the other vehicles on the road, as well as brake assist, lane departure alert, and automatic high beams, among other features.
Which system is best for you? That depends on your budget. The Volvo S series starts out at around $44,000, while the cheapest Tesla S series will run you over $75,000. Besides that, while the Tesla automation package and is extensive and ambitious to the extent you would expect for a visionary company like Tesla, the S series’ “Intellisafe” system is comprehensive and impressive, and comes equipped in a car which for decades has earned the right to call itself the industry leader in safety.
Like in countless other fields, automation will continue to be a fact of life in the automotive world. Sure, there will be questions. These include safety issues as well as all types of scenarios people maybe haven’t thought enough about, such as what happens if the driver has a cardiac incident or some sort of sudden health emergency and is unable to help drive the car. More importantly, will the car be able to pull over and notify emergency services? It’s a learning process, and while we are still a long, long way from full-automation, the incorporation of driver-less technology will continue to provide solutions to improve safety for drivers everywhere.