Last week we were lucky enough to attend the New England Motor Press Association’s Technology Conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. The conference has become an annual event put on by NEMPA, with strong support from MIT (particularly from Paul Parravano, Co-Director of MIT’s Office of Government and Community Relations).
Each year, the conference aims to shine a spotlight on a particular area of technology and show how that technology is changing the cars we know and love. This year, the conference featured panelists from diverse corners of the auto industry, all seeking to explain how modern technology is “engineering safer drivers” (this year’s theme).
Kicking off the event was Ford’s Pete Reyes, chief engineer of the 2015 Ford F-150. Changing gears and shifting away from the formula that has guided truck production for many, many years, Ford decided to make a statement and build the body of the new F-150 out of aluminum. According to Reyes, the first big hurdle Ford had to overcome with the truck was figuring out the supply chain, as suddenly making America’s best-selling vehicle out of aluminum instead of steel would cause a dramatic shakeup. Once the supply chain was figured out, Ford got to work on designing and building the truck itself, even going so far as to test the aluminum body at an unsuspecting Nevada gold mine and using a disguised version of the truck to complete the Baja 1000. Ford kept work on the truck customer-centric, working closely with truck drivers to ensure the new F-150 would be as versatile as it is innovative. We haven’t seen the finished product in-person yet, but after hearing Reyes speak, we’re excited to.
After Reyes came the technology panel, featuring speakers from MIT, Nvidia, General Motors, Autoliv and Global Automakers. First up was Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at the MIT AgeLab and the Associate Director of the New England University Transportation Center. Dr. Reimer touched on many of the new safety technologies that are coming into cars today and noted how cars are beginning to transform much like airplanes have. Like planes, cars are now becoming more automated machines. According to Dr. Reimer, where plane manufacturers have decided to design aerospace technologies around supporting the pilot, car companies will be designing their future technologies to support the driver. As vehicles travel more miles (and drivers are in charge for less of them), it’s important to keep the driver in the loop, ready to take control if the car’s systems are unable to deal with an incident.
Adding to Dr. Reimer’s comments, the other panelists broadly supported the idea of keeping the driver in the loop as opposed to making fully autonomous cars. John Capp, Director of Electric and Control Systems Research and Active Safety Strategic Lead at General Motors Research and Development, shared a bit about what General Motors is doing to help drivers stay safe. According to Capp, GM is designing systems that will take control of cars in certain conditions (much like autopilot on a plane), but that will only function in specific environments (e.g. on highways with clear weather). GM aims to use these systems to make cars safer in certain environments, while keeping the driver firmly in the loop in order take control in bad conditions, dangerous situations or in environments that work best with human input.
Danny Shapiro, Senior Director of Automotive at Nvidia, and Jeff Ruel, Director of Business Development at Autoliv Active Safety, also spoke about the technologies their companies are working on to improve driver safety. Shapiro spoke about how advances in visual computing are working to get vital information to drivers in the least intrusive way possible. One example of this is Audi’s digital cockpits, which warn drivers of potential hazards via the instrument panel, keeping the driver informed while diverting attention from the road for minimal amounts of time. Moving more toward the active safety side of the spectrum, Ruel added that technologies in development at Autoliv are working to track driver eyelid movement and gaze direction, and will be able to learn different drivers’ habits and issue warnings when it seems they are fatigued or may be unaware of an approaching obstacle. Ruel also spoke about Autoliv’s night-vision and pedestrian-detection technologies, which work to help drivers see in poor conditions by broadcasting a stream from an infrared camera to the driver, with pedestrians highlighted.
John Bozzella, President and CEO of Global Automakers then jumped into the mix, quick to bring up the fact that, although vehicle miles driven since 1965 have increased greatly, per-capita auto-related fatalities are down. One of the best results of the progression we have seen with both cars and technology, Bozzella argued, is that in-car safety technology has largely been ahead of the regulation game. That is to say, innovative safety features (like back-up cameras) have improved car safety so much that regulators have made them mandatory on new cars well after many makers began offering them as standard equipment.
As the panel heated up, there was a wide consensus that the driver should never be eliminated from the car, but will likely come to play a smaller active role in its operation. With automated systems improving, the panelists agreed that it’s extremely important to keep drivers as involved as possible, while allowing cars to handle themselves when conditions allow it. One issue that came up was how new cars will likely begin talking to each other in the very new future. Even with this new technology in newer cars, older, classic cars will never be off the roads, so it’s important that all future systems are designed to work with, and detect, cars unable to communicate with others.
We’re not exactly sure what the future holds, but we’re very grateful to NEMPA and MIT for putting on the event this year. As car fans, we can’t say we’re anything less than ecstatic to learn about everything car manufacturers and suppliers are doing to make cars safer. The fact that the best safety technologies out there look set to give us cool toys that make us better drivers is just an added bonus – an awesome added bonus.
Are you excited for the new safety technologies set to be in your next car?