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Not self-driving yet, but getting closer

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JEFF ZURSCHMEIDE  - Fourteen of the most advanced green cars in the country came to Portland for an automotive conference at the World Trade Center last week.
A little more than two months after the driver of an all-electric Tesla car was killed in a crash while driving on the manufacturer’s “Autopilot” system, a fleet of high-tech electric vehicles were road-tested in downtown Portland by more than a dozen automotive journalists.

All of the drives went smoothly, with the cars easily weaving through midday traffic, even over the Hawthorne Bridge with its notoriously slippery steel grating and the Morrison Bridge with its deteriorating decking. The only safety systems that activated were partially automated, like rear-view backup cameras.

Tesla did not take part in the Drive Revolution event in Portland, and none of the other factory representatives who participated would criticize the company on the record for the recent accident. But privately, some of them thought the EV car company founded by maverick businessman Elon Musk went too far, by allowing drivers to test prototype safety systems that promised more than they could deliver. Even the “Autopilot” name gave the impression the systems — which had never been approved by federal regulators — could drive the cars safely by themselves.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JEFF ZURSCHMEIDE  - Some advanced technologies in today's cars are obvious, like the apps on the display screen of the 2017 Volkswagen e-Golf demonstrated by factory representative Darryl Harrison during Drive Revolution. Some safety systems only work when you need them, however.Instead, several of the factory representatives at the Drive Revolution conference said their safety systems are intended to assist drivers and reduce the risk or severity of crashes.

Systems on the cars at the July 19 conference included blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, emergency braking and more. They are almost all available on top-of-the-line models from most manufacturers today. All count on drivers maintaining control of their vehicles.

Honda is especially proud of its Honda Sensing safety system, which includes automatic emergency braking if an onboard computer anticipates an upcoming crash. Davis Adams, Honda’s West Coast public relations manager, said the company is the only one to offer such systems in its lowest-priced cars.

“Those are the cars most likely to be bought by drivers with the least experience,” Adams said.

But that does not mean manufacturers aren’t interested in some form of self-driving vehicle in the future. Although not tested at the conference, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles showed up with a plug-in hybrid Pacifica minivan, which is scheduled to go on sale before the end of the year. It can go 30 miles on electricity alone before switching over to conventional gas-electric hybrid power. The company has provided a number of them to Google to serve as platforms for its self-driving vehicle research project.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JEFF ZURSCHMEIDE  - Who says green cars have to be boring? The all-new 2017 Acura NSX hybrid supercar is built to compete against the fastest cars in the world.“Working with Google provides an opportunity for FCA to partner with one of the world’s leading technology companies to accelerate the pace of innovation in the automotive industry,” said FCA chief executive Sergio Marchionne when announcing the partnership in May. “The experience both companies gain will be fundamental to delivering automotive technology solutions that ultimately have far-reaching consumer benefits.”

According to FCA’s announcement, self-driving cars have the potential to prevent some of the 33,000 deaths that occur each year on U.S. roads, because 94 percent of them are caused by human error.

All cars getting more technical

By coincidence, the Portland conference hosted by the Northwest Automotive Press Association took place the day that Carnegie Mellon College of Engineering researchers called for automotive manufacturers to install partially automated safety systems in all of their vehicles as soon as possible. The researchers published a study titled “Cost and Benefit Estimates of Partially Automated Vehicle Collision Avoidance Technologies,” which said such systems could prevent or reduce the severity of up to 1.3 million crashes a year, including 10,100 fatal wrecks.

“While there is much discussion about driverless vehicles,” said Chris Hendrickson, director of the Carnegie Mellon Traffic21 Institute, “we have demonstrated that even with partial automation there are financial and safety benefits.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JEFF ZURSCHMEIDE  - Chrysler has provided its all-new plug-in hybrid Pacifica minivan to Google for the company's self-driving vehicle research program. There are no plans to sell a self-driving version to the public, yet.According to Hendrickson, “If you bought a car right now with these safety systems at the current prices offered by auto manufacturers, both you and society would have a positive economic benefit. We are seeing that partial automation is accomplishing crash and crash severity reductions, and we expect that to improve. This study creates a framework for regulatory action, encouraging early deployment of partial automation technologies.”

Safety systems were not the focus of the July 19 conference. Instead, it was organized by the automotive press group to evaluate the latest all-electric vehicles, hybrids and plug-in hybrids, which can go a certain distance on electricity alone before switching over to conventional gas-electric power. The 14 vehicles at the conference included selections from each category, ranging from the least expensive — the all-electric 2016 Volkswagen e-Golf at $29,815 — to the 2017 Acura NSX hybrid supercar at $157,800. New versions of the other EV and hybrid cars included a 2016 Toyota Prius Touring hybrid at $33,242, a 2016 Nissan Leaf SL at $39,390 and a 2017 Chevy Volt Premier at $40,925. Most, if not all, qualify for federal tax credits.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JEFF ZURSCHMEIDE  - Those at Drive Revolution got a sneek peak of the all new Kia Niro hybrid crossover, which is not yet on sale.Drive Revolution was started several years ago to study emerging fuel efficiency technologies. But as the type and number of vehicles expanded in response to increasing federal mileage standards, other aspects of the vehicles have gotten more advanced as well, including their safety systems. During the vehicle introductions at the July 19 conference, almost all of the factory representatives mentioned their high-tech safety systems to prove they are “real” cars, not just science experiments.

The conference helps continue Portland’s reputation as a leading city for green vehicles. The city has one of the highest per-capita EV ownership rates in the country.

The event took place at the downtown headquarters of PGE, which is working with the state, city and Portland State University to promote EV ownership. The utility relocated the original Electric Avenue row of charging stations from PSU to just outside its headquarters when they had to move for a construction project.

Safety system basics

All manufacturers now offer a number of advanced safety systems on their vehicles, with the most usually available on the highest-priced models. Although it seems that using all of them together would create self-driving vehicles, that’s not the way it works in the real world. Here are some of the most common:

• Lane departure alert/intervention: These warning systems use various sensors to let you know when you’re about to stray out of your lane. Advanced systems can use the brakes or electric power steering, automatically helping you maintain your lane.

• Blind-spot warning: Not all cars have great visibility to the rear, but blind-spot warning systems can keep you out of trouble by letting you know when there’s someone in your blind spot, by flashing lights in the side mirrors and sounding alarms.

• Forward collision warning/intervention: Like an extra set of eyes, forward collision warning systems monitor how quickly you are approaching slow or stopped traffic ahead. In many vehicles, the system will intervene if you don’t act, preventing or mitigating the damages from an accident.

• Adaptive cruise control: Also called dynamic cruise control, these systems monitor the traffic ahead and slow your car below your set cruise-control speed, maintaining safe spacing. When the lane clears, your vehicle automatically accelerates back up to its set speed.