Will the car of the future have co-pilot technology?

Nick DiUlio

In the past when we thought about futuristic cars, we wanted them to fly. That notion has since taken a backseat to a much more practical—and possible—future: self-driving vehicles. And while it still may be some time before we can put the family minivan on complete autopilot, Gimlet Systems co-founder Sterling Anderson says his company’s co-pilot technology is paving the way for much safer roadways.

co-pilotAlong with fellow Gimlet co-founder Karl Iagnemma, and in partnership with Quantum Signal, LLC, Anderson has developed perhaps the most advanced self-driving technology on the road today. The intelligent co-pilot system, which relies on a combination of laser and video detection, kicks in whenever a driver is about to crash.

For instance, let’s say you crank the steering wheel to avoid hitting a pothole. You may turn the wheel so hard that you risk running off the road. If this happened, the co-pilot system would automatically take over, compensating for your mistake and keep the car from turning off the road.

CarInsuranceQuotes.com recently caught up with Anderson to discuss this remarkable technology and the ways in which it may affect the future of driving and auto insurance.

Will future cars have co-pilot technology?

What prompted you and Karl to found Gimlet Systems?

Five years ago while I was studying under Karl at MIT, the government was funding something called the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Urban Challenge, a research and development project aimed at designing self-driving technologies for use in military vehicles. Teams of engineers built self-driving vehicles to see how well they would perform in an urban environment. MIT was one of the few teams that actually completed the challenge, and that got us thinking about the possibilities of self-driving technology. We knew humans wouldn’t be ready for vehicles that just drove automatically, so we wanted to design something that would allow the human driver to stay in control of the vehicle while also allowing the car to override mistakes. It was a quest to intelligently blend human and machine.

How does the technology work?

We use something called look-ahead sensing. It’s a laser range finder that spins around on the roof of the vehicle and gives a 360-degree view of the environment. It also uses cameras to detect things like lane markers and medians. This allows the vehicle to sense all features of the environment, like a vehicle up ahead, a road’s edge, or a pedestrian off in the distance. It uses this information to measure how well the driver is performing in relation to the environment.

As an example?

Let’s say you’re falling asleep behind the wheel and coming up to a turn in the roadway. The vehicle would detect that you’re not responding to the upcoming turn. It knows how fast you’re going and what it needs to do to make sure you don’t run off the road. So the vehicle would start to turn automatically. Before an accident or collision becomes inevitable, the system makes all the necessary adjustments. The technology is completely integrated into the vehicle’s systems, which means it can perform all sorts of tasks, like slowing down, speeding up and making evasive maneuvers when necessary.

A recent article in Wired magazine said this software is much more nuanced and ambitious than anything on the road. How so?

When our neighbors or friends hear about this, they often say, ‘Doesn’t my vehicle already do this?’ It makes me chuckle. If you look at something like an active breaking system or adaptive cruise control, those systems have no understanding of what the human driver is doing. Active cruise control, for instance, knows that you may be approaching a car in front of you too quickly and it’ll slow down. But if you’re headed for curve in the road you didn’t notice, systems like that have no way of determining when to turn or brake.

Co-pilot isn’t available in consumer vehicles yet, but as you think about bringing this technology to consumers, what are some of the biggest challenges you face?

One of the things we’re trying to figure out right now is whether the human driver should be informed that the system is assisting them. There’s potential for drivers to never be aware that an intervention took place and that they were just saved from an accident. In other words, should the system tell the driver that what he just did was actually wrong and would have caused an accident?

Why is this a significant concern?

We’re trying to avoid complacency. If a driver never gets in an accident because of this technology, he might start getting complacent about how he drives. When anti-lock brakes were first introduced, you saw an immediate reduction in collisions. But eventually collisions climbed back to where they were before anti-lock brakes. That’s because people started driving a little more recklessly, anticipating the anti-lock brakes would save them.

Our concern is that people may start driving faster and with less caution because our system is there to protect them. So how do we prevent them from being too dependent on it and, in the process, lose their judgment skills when driving? That’s something we’re working on now.

When this technology eventually reaches the consumer market, do you anticipate any implications on auto insurance?

Definitely. We’re already talking to several insurers about how it might affect premiums. It will surely mean fewer collisions, which will mean savings for the insurance company. We suspect those savings will be passed on in discounts to consumers who drive Gimlet-enabled vehicles. So consumers will be able to compare two vehicles—one with Gimlet and one without—and know that a Gimlet vehicle will cost, say, half the price to insure … because it’s safer.

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