FOSTER CITY, Calif. — Imagine if the only articles written about smartphones focused solely on the ones you might buy in 2022. While one piece like that may be an interesting read, you’d probably find it hard to care about too much futuristic information.
Yet, when it comes to automobiles, all we seem to hear about these days is their autonomous future. Everywhere you look, you run into breathless ruminations about the future of the fully-autonomous, fully electric car. I have no doubt that we will get there one day, but the day you can walk into a local car dealer and purchase such a vehicle is a long way off.
Yes, technology advancements towards that nirvana of fully autonomous cars are moving forward at a break-neck pace. There are some very impressive components being produced by automotive tech leaders like Nvidia, and some great “concept car” prototypes from Tier 1 suppliers like Harman. But even if all the technology elements come together over the next few years, the regulatory, infrastructure, insurance, and other more “practical” parts of our autonomous automotive future are still far from being ready for this incredibly important and very disruptive transition. As the most recent Tesla AutoPilot-related crash highlights, there are still technological refinements that need to be made as well.
In the meantime, there are some amazing automotive-related technologies that are getting lost in the noise of full autonomy. Most notably, there are quite a few developments around assisted driving technologies—sometimes referred to as ADAS, or Advanced Driver Assistance Systems—that are poised to make a significant impact on automotive safety within the next few years.
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Most automakers, for example, now have some type of front collision avoidance system that can automatically brake if cameras or other sensors on the car detect objects in front of the vehicle that could lead to an accident. Not every automaker offers this capability as standard, but increasingly, many of them are. Lane departure warnings, blind spot detection, rear-collision avoidance, road condition awareness, and other similar features are starting to become widespread as well, and they’re being dramatically improved along the way.
Mainstream brands like Chevrolet and Honda tend to have these features as optional and luxury brands like Audio, Volvo and Mercedes generally have it as standard.
However, there seems to be little attention paid to these important here-and-now improvements to modern cars.
Part of the problem, of course, is that these developments aren’t anywhere as exciting as fully autonomous cars. But the truth is, we don’t need fully autonomous cars to save thousands of lives. Widespread availability and usage of these more pedestrian features could go a very long way to reducing the roughly 35,000 auto-related fatalities in the US every year. They could also dramatically decrease serious injury-causing accidents, as well as annoying fender-benders.
As great as many ADAS features are, there are also questions about how far they can realistically be taken. Well before we get to fully autonomous driving, there will be different levels of semi-autonomous driving, where the car can do certain things (such as bumper-to-bumper highway driving) on its own. It’s not clear, however, how to make sure the drivers are still at least somewhat engaged so that as the situation demands, they can take over the driving process in a realistic time frame. This is where concerns about Tesla’s AutoPilot features currently are, and we’re likely to see several other implementations (and potential problems) from other car makers over the next year.
Even with these challenging questions, however, it’s still great to see the recent increased emphasis that many car makers seem to be showing towards the benefits and attractiveness of ADAS-based safety features in their advertising and other messaging. Remember that the average lifetime of most cars in the U.S. is over 10 years, so even if everyone started only buying cars fully equipped with these new features today, it will still take quite a while for the full benefits to take effect.
Talking, thinking, and writing about the future is certainly an interesting exercise, but sometimes it’s easy for people—and entire industries—to get too far ahead of themselves. When it comes to cars, let’s not overlook some of the amazing new tech-driven capabilities that will be showing up in your local showroom both this year and next.
USA TODAY columnist Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry aand professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Microsoft, HP, Dell, and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.
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