A glimpse into the autonomous futurePOSTED BY Mick Chan ON 06 April 2015
A car that drives by itself is called an autonomous car.
Many of us dislike – even hate – the idea of surrendering control of our car. After all, we pay a lot of money to buy the car and we enjoy driving.
But wait a moment – even this love for driving can change when faced with severe traffic congestion.
Automation is a very welcome prospect – a tonic, even – in the face of the tedium encountered by and among masses of people who pilot themselves to their destinations out of need, rather than because they actually desire to.
Arguably one of its most outlandish design concepts yet, the Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury In Motion concept car puts added emphasis on the theme of living spaces; a “private retreat”, as the company calls it.
The F 015 is intended as a space where people will want to get away to, where they have some isolation and privacy from the increasingly developed urban centres which will certainly multiply in population density.
“Lounge on wheels” is apt in describing the F 015; four large armchairs dominate the immediate sight into the cabin, and all four can be swivelled to varying degrees; the front seats can be turned right around to face the rear ones for optimal interaction between all four occupants.
In a nutshell, the F 015 is a hydrogen fuel-cell plug-in hybrid powertrain contained within a body designed, as the company summarised, with the express intention to provide mobilised accommodation whilst taking over the more tedious actions of navigating urban traffic.
Mercedes-Benz points out that this interpretation is subject to change as the years, ideas and consequent refinements roll in.
The F 015 is as much about making automated driving easier to accept, as it is about redesigning the concept of occupant accommodation within an automobile.
In the early days of the automobile, a person was required to walk ahead of said vehicle to warn other people nearby of the presence of the horseless carriage – this was important, because the general population, up to that point, was most accustomed to vehicles in the form of horse-drawn carriages.
In terms of the public’s awareness, the shift from a traditionally driven vehicle versus an autonomous one is perhaps as great as the transition from horse-drawn to horseless carriages.
With the F 015 experimental vehicle, Mercedes-Benz’s objective was to integrate autonomous vehicles into the general population as seamlessly as possible; to help them gain social acceptance and alleviate fears that come with the prospect of living with cars that drive themselves.
Among the measures featured in the F 015 for that purpose include a plethora of equipment, chiefly for communicating with other road users, including pedestrians, around it.
Key to visual communication are the multi-function LED arrays located at the front and rear of the F 015. At the front, the first thing to indicate the F 015’s state of autonomy is the colour of the LED array: white if the car is being driven manually, or blue if it is operating autonomously.
A combination of visual and aural cues are used for communicating with road users around the F 015. For instance, when engaging with pedestrians whilst in autonomous mode, the LEDs in front of the car illuminate in a outward sweeping motion if there are people in its way, while audible voice cues saying “please” indicate that the vehicle intends to proceed on its path when it is safe.
Similarly, if it detects pedestrians that may want to cross the road in front of the car, it signals with pre-recorded audio saying “please go ahead” accompanied by sweeping LEDs indicating that the pedestrians may cross in front of the F 015.
The installed cameras are also programmed to recognise hand gestures, for example if it has stopped for pedestrians close to the edge of the road but they are not crossing it, they can then wave the vehicle by and it will reciprocate with an audible “thank you” before going ahead.
Around the back of the F 015, the rear LED array also serves similar purposes. They are red, as befitting lights fitted to the rear of a vehicle, with added ways of communication with road users behind it.
If slow traffic is detected, the rear LED array spells “SLOW” in red, and if there is a need to suddenly decelerate or to come to a halt, the rear LED array will alert vehicles following behind it by spelling out “STOP”.
Both front and rear LED arrays illuminate small segments at a time in accordance to the movement of a pedestrian in front of the F 015. It does this to acknowledge that the car has in fact seen the pedestrian.
Mercedes-Benz says that these interactions with surrounding road users are intended to ease them into accepting that autonomous vehicles can be intelligent enough to read road user behaviour, and thus gradually improve others’ confidence towards sharing the roads with these machines.
When more and more autonomous vehicles ply urban roads, Mercedes-Benz thinks that the resulting diminished reliance on human drivers can also help reduce physical road signs, thus freeing up precious land area on sidewalks, street corners and intersections.
Our Malaysian delegation to San Francisco, California, where the F 015 was sampled, had mixed feelings towards the idea of autonomous driving.
As a device, a product of research and development, the F 015 Luxury In Motion is an impressive item, but as a whole we were perhaps more lukewarm to the thought of surrendering control of an automobile to computers, regardless of how advanced technology has become.
Perhaps we were driving enthusiasts of the traditional kind; the one that clings dearly to the act of physically coordinating the numerous driving inputs of steering, braking, and accelerating a vehicle.
In the much more distant future, there could well be not just a demand, but a real need for highly autonomous vehicles, primarily to facilitate mobility in urban landscapes of ever-increasing congestion.
In that far away place, the manually driven, internal combustion engine-powered automobile might assume a much more niche presence, just as horseback riding has become a purely recreational activity now that motorised transport has by far become the norm.