Monday, 14 January 2019

Driver aids

I have long been bearish on autonomous cars. This has not been helped by Elon Musk and Tesla consistently over-selling the autonomous capabilities of their cars, and of journalists sometimes  overawed reviews of other companies technology, e.g. Waymo.

The wheels have somewhat come off the autonomous car juggernaut over the last year (and I will try to write about this later). But for this post, I thought I would look at the other end of the problem: simple driver assistance aids.

Sencan recently got a new job with a longer commute, and we decided to get a new car. And for the first time in our lives, it would be a brand-new car.

After rejecting the new-style Honda Jazz, and covetously eyeing a Ford Fiesta, she decided upon a Hyundai I20. The model we chose has several driver aids: Lane Keeping Assist System, Lane Departure Warning System, Forward Collision Avoidance, and Driver Attention Alert.

Sencan has been driving it to and from work for the last few months, and I only recently got to drive it for a journey further than the local shops.

I have never driven a car with these aids before, so I thought I'd have a quick trial of them (excluding Forward Collision Avoidance, which would be rather difficult to test safely) to see what I thought.

Lane Keeping Assist System

This is where the car detects a lane ahead, and if you drift out of the lane, it pulls the car back in. Whilst active, a light illuminates on the dashboard and the feeling feels heavier: similar to an old, heavy vehicle without power steering. The car definitely lets you know it is in control.

Somewhat surprisingly, it also steered around bends (this is probably not recommended usage of it) if I just rested my hands on the wheel.

When enabled, lane keeping assist appears to work well. The steering is heavy enough to allow you to know that it is enabled without seeing the dashboard light, and it seems to follow the lane well - although on some bends it steers like a fifty-pence piece - perhaps because its cameras can only 'see' a short distance ahead.

However, it does not seem to trigger on country roads or in towns, and even on an A road, it occasionally flickers on and off.

Lane Departure Warning System

In this, a light flashes and a buzzer sounds if you go outside a lane - at least on the driver's side;  I had no safe opportunity to test it on the nearside.

Driver Attention Alert

I tried resting my hands loosely on the wheel to see how well it would keep to the lane (as safely as possible; I never actually let go), and a warning would flash up to tell me to keep my hands on the wheel. This also seemed fairly reliable and unremarkable.

General notes

In the case of lane assist, it seems to require white lines on both sides delineating the lane, and will only activate if both are there. If so, this makes sense, as such line detection is far easier than trying to detect the actual edge of the road if the lines are not present. However the flickering on and off of lane assist can be annoying; I presume it is trying to fail safe (i.e. off).

The lane warning is much more robust; if I go over a white line it beeps and a light flashes on the dashboard. This seems much more aggressive in its detection than the lane assist; perhaps because it is only a warning, a few false positives (i.e. warnings given when one is not required) does not matter.


All in all, it was a positive experience. It is an interesting first step towards automation, albeit a baby step. There is also a massive gulf between it and true autonomy, especially in the places lane assist would not enable itself, despite the lanes being obvious. In my opinion they can also be a valuable driving aid - if used correctly.

For me, the most impressive thing is that this capability is present in a reasonably-priced car, and appears to work well and unobtrusively. But there is a vast gulf between such assistant technologies and the ones required for automated driving, which will have to work 100% of the time.

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