Imagine this scenario: You get into your car in the morning and start to back out of the driveway. Suddenly, you hear a warning sound, telling you that a vehicle coming down the street will intersect your path. Your car applies the brakes on its own while the vehicle passes by harmlessly.
You get on the highway, then press a button, take your hands off the wheel and reach for your coffee. The car takes over the steering, centering itself in the lane and following the vehicle ahead at a safe distance.
This scenario may not be as far away as you think, according to Consumer Reports. Most of the technology needed to make it an everyday reality already exists, either in today’s production vehicles or in prototypes being tested on public roads.
Consumer Reports offers this rundown of advances you can find in showrooms that are also the building blocks of tomorrow’s autonomous cars.
• Looking down the road. One of the most promising features is forward-collision warning (FCW). It uses sensors or cameras to monitor the distance between your car and the one in front. If the system calculates that you are at risk of hitting that vehicle, it alerts you through an audible and visual warning.
• An extra set of eyes. Many crashes occur when a car inadvertently runs into an unseen vehicle while changing lanes. A blind spot-monitoring system is designed to prevent that by monitoring the area next to and behind the car. If a vehicle is present, it will illuminate a warning light in or near the side-view mirror. If you activate a turn signal while a car is there, the system could send a stronger alert, such as a blinking light or an audible warning, to tell the driver that it’s unsafe to move over.
• Stay the course. Lane-departure warning (LDW) is designed to help prevent a sleepy or distracted driver from accidentally drifting out of his or her lane. It uses cameras and radar to detect lane markings and triggers a warning if the car starts to leave its lane without a turn signal being activated. Some advanced systems can take corrective steering action to help keep the vehicle on course.
• Go with the flow. Adaptive cruise control helps your car automatically maintain a set distance behind one in front. Though it has been around for some time, newer systems have more capabilities. Some, for example, will disengage and require the driver to take over if the vehicle in front is traveling below a certain speed.
• Pedestrian detection. In 2012, pedestrian deaths from motor vehicle accidents accounted for 14 percent of all crash fatalities. Though Volvo was the first automaker to bring pedestrian detection to its vehicles, others offer it as well. The systems can recognize a person in front of the car and automatically apply the brakes, if needed, before an impact.
Consumer Reports notes that it’s a good investment if you spend a lot of time driving in crowded areas, because it has the potential to help you avoid hitting a pedestrian or reduce the chance of serious injuries to one. Some newer systems can also detect bicyclists.
• Self-parking. Parallel parking is a challenge for many drivers. And more cars are available with a park assist feature that can help. The feature debuted in the 2007 Lexus LS, but it wasn’t foolproof. A number of automakers currently offer such systems, with more advanced capabilities. The 2014 Jeep Cherokee, for example, can help with both perpendicular and parallel parking.
• Vehicle-to-vehicle communication. Although the technology is not yet available in production cars, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently announced that it was moving toward mandating that vehicles come equipped with wireless systems termed “V2V” that would allow cars to “talk” to each other, exchanging speed and location data so that they can avoid accidents.