AA Car Care: Keeping on the straight and narrow
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With every new vehicle launched in New Zealand, technology and safety are generally improved over previous models. Vehicle steering systems in particular are always evolving – these use technology that can keep the vehicle in its intended lane and assist in collision avoidance.
These systems have an array of names, but Lane Keep Assist (LKA) and Lane Departure Warning (LDW) are two of the most common.
It starts with a warning
At the turn of the century, car manufacturers started to introduce safety features like lane monitoring and lane keeping support systems in passenger cars.
These systems utilised video sensors mounted on the windscreen near the rear view mirror, laser sensors in the front bumper, or infrared sensors mounted behind the windscreen or underneath the vehicle.
They act as another pair of eyes scanning the road and can detect when the vehicle passes over a broken or solid white line, issuing a warning to the driver. This warning can be by way of an audible chime, a visual display or flashing light, or even a vibration felt through the seat or steering wheel.
These systems are known as “passive”, because they serve as a warning only and have no capability to act on the drivers behalf in order to avoid a collision.
The car will if you don’t
With the adoption of Electric Power Steering (EPS), as opposed to traditional hydraulic power steering, vehicle safety systems moved to the next level.
Active assist or autonomous safety systems are similar to passive technology. Similar audible warnings are issued, but if your reactions are too slow, the vehicle will automatically take steps to ensure that it stays in its intended lane.
In some cars, the Active Lane Keep (ALK) is available in conjunction with the Adaptive/Radar Cruise Control, which gives you a small sense of autonomous driving as the car maintains its position in the lane. More and more new vehicles now come equipped with LKA systems that can be used even without the cruise control and will even work in some suburban streets where road markings are clear.
When it’s active, you may experience a light resistance in the steering system as the vehicle senses it might be weaving within the lane. Some systems allow the user to set the strength level of the assist.
If you think you don’t have to drive with your hands on the wheel any more, this is not the case. The driver must be in control of the vehicle at all times. The system assists the driver, and doesn’t take sole charge of the driving.
These systems issue a warning and will deactivate if the driver removes hands from the steering wheel after a short period of time. But they do give a small indication of how an autonomous vehicle could operate if and when we get that far.
The car will if you can’t
The further utilisation of this autonomous system is where a vehicle will actively swerve to avoid a head on collision (only if it’s safe to do so).
You may have seen a recent video of a Tesla nearly involved in a rear end collision being safely guided to the side of the road, to avoid hitting the stationary car in front.
Some cars can even safely guide themselves to a stop on the side of the road if they detect the driver has become unresponsive at the wheel.
The importance of reliable infrastructure
These systems are great safety features, but do rely on road markings being clear and consistent.
They typically cannot decipher faded, missing, or incorrect lane markings. Markings covered in snow, dirt, and leaves or old lane markings left visible can also hinder the ability of the systems.
However, this technology is becoming increasingly advanced - some of the latest systems can even display on screen the difference between solid and dotted lines as the road markings change.