2018 Lexus LC500/LC500h

On The Road To Autonomy

The headlines may herald the advent of autonomous vehicles, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Cars that entirely drive without human input are still some time away. While we wait, though, driver-assistance systems have advanced rapidly, making it much easier to drive safely, park at the push of a button (yes, cars can park themselves), and avoid harrowing moments such as hitting an obstacle in the road. We spotlight five new head-turners with exceptional robot technology — they’re also sleekly designed and cool machines to drive. 


By Michael Frank

Click here for a look at these cool new rides. 

2017 LAND ROVER DISCOVERY
The newest-generation Discovery has grown larger and roomier. Like past "Discos," it's very much at home off-road, too, featuring an off-road-only cruise control that makes driving through mud and muck as simple as steering anywhere else you want to go.

Still, while Land Rover customer surveys reveal most of its drivers don't go off-roading regularly, about 30 percent say they tow cargo such as boats and horse trailers at least once a year. To that end, Advanced Tow Assist helps drivers back up their trailers without ever touching the steering wheel. We tested it out, using a rotary controller and touchscreen on the center console. Applying the brake or throttle, we followed cues showing which way to turn the knob. With this system, we reversed a huge boat down a long, curved launch and a horse trailer through a narrow gate. We nailed both incredibly difficult maneuvers on the first try.

Another cool feature: Live ETA. Even if you didn't plot your course into GPS, this super-smart innovation remembers your regular routes. If you're delayed from your usual arrival time, it informs friends or colleagues via text on their smartphones about your delay with an updated predicted arrival time based on current traffic.

411: $49,990; landroverusa.com

 

2017 BMW 5 SERIES
Built using an entirely new platform, this year's 5 Series is longer, wider, and slightly taller, and now has trunk space for up to four golf bags. It also dropped more than 100 pounds, so it's tauter in corners, and the added width makes it feel more planted.

On the autonomous front, advanced cruise control eases the pain of stop-and-go traffic and the company added its Night Vision With Pedestrian Detection system, previously available only on the larger 7 Series, to the 5 Series. We tested it with astonishing results. One evening, the system flashed an alert on the windscreen above the gauges, warning us of a deer in the road. Indeed, well beyond the high beams' reach, a buck stood in our path. Another night, it detected a pedestrian on the road's shoulder, again beyond the headlamps' reach. BMW says its infrared sensors can detect large animals as far as 500 feet away and people at about 330 feet. 

The car's tech also helps you in emergency circumstances, such as when the driver ahead slams on the brakes and you have to make a split-second decision. The Evasion Aid feature engages when you swerve to avoid hitting an obstacle, immediately tightening the steering ratio - how much you have to rotate the wheel to turn the car. The stability control gives you enough wheel spin to veer the car harshly, but not so much that the car skids beyond the driver's control. 

411: From $51,200; bmwusa.com

 

2018 LEXUS LC 500/LC 500H
Targeted directly at Porsche's 911 crowd, this stellar sports car comes either as a hybrid or with a 471-horsepower V-8. No Prius, the hybrid launches to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds; the latter nails 60 mph in 4.4 seconds. On a test track, both handled beautifully, cornering very predictably and feeling stable at high speeds. 

When it comes to driver assistance, the LC twins inherit much of what Lexus has learned as a larger brand and adds tech beyond the defaults of more boutique sports-car makers. You get advanced cruise control with lane-keeping. As with the BMW, you can bring this car to a dead halt in cruise mode and, after a stop, just tap the gas and it climbs back up to the preset cruise speed.

Lexus' pedestrian detection system breaks new ground, automatically braking to avoid a collision, and in cases where the car can't stop in time, opens the hood a few inches at impact to soak up some of the kinetic energy, offering a potentially life-saving feature. In advanced emergency braking scenarios, the LC illuminates its brake lights before the brakes even begin actuation, alerting anyone following you, to help prevent a potential multicar pileup. 

411: From $92,000; lexus.com

 

2017 FORD F-150 LIMITED
Ford's newest F-150 now gets a more potent twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6 with 375 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of torque - that's a jump of 10 in horsepower and 50 lb-ft of torque - and thanks to an all-new 10-speed transmission, it actually gets better fuel economy, too, with 18 mpg city/25 highway.

It also bristles with helpful tech, including steering assistance that, in our road test, kept the big truck tracking cleanly on mountain roads and advanced cruise control that slowed or sped up to a safe following distance in heavier traffic. 

Even more impressive, the F-150's advanced tire-pressure monitor, unlike old-school lights that just flash an alert on the dash, tells you the pressure in each tire. When we got a flat at 70 mph on the highway, the system immediately alerted us the PSI was dropping rapidly in the right front tire, so we knew we had to pull over to the shoulder quickly. Where prior systems, which often fired off false alarms, could lull you into thinking there wasn't a problem, the F-150's smarter monitoring proved it can be a true life saver.

411: $59,795; ford.com

 

2017 MERCEDES-BENZ E300 4MATIC
The entirely new E-Class moves like a boxer who dropped weight classes; where the old E-Class could be pushed hard, this edition welcomes sporty hustling around winding back roads - and the body, to our eyes, looks more graceful to boot.

You'll find technology here not found in other cars. For instance, with the Pre-Safe Impulse Side system, if the car's sensors read an impending side impact, the outermost bolsters of the two front seats instantly inflate like melons, rotating the front-seat passengers toward the center of the vehicle ahead of the accident so they're repositioned for better protection.

With its Active Lane-Change Assist, when you signal to pass, the car uses sensors to ensure the left lane is vacant, then moves the 300 over, accelerates, and steers back into the center or right lane, all with zero effort on the part of the driver.

Eyeing up a tight-looking slot in a parking garage? The Parking Pilot system uses the car's cameras and sensors to steer into the space. This parking-assistance feature comes in handy especially if you're trying to squeeze into a tight space at the mall or parallel parking on the street - where increasingly it seems there's less asphalt allotment per car, even as the average vehicle size has grown. 

411: $54,650; mbusa.com

WHY TOTALLY DRIVERLESS CARS AREN'T HERE YET

Carmakers have already done the easy math on autonomous driving with features such as lane-keeping and starting and stopping in snarled highway traffic. The tougher business is what we do daily - for instance, merging in a construction zone where five lanes suddenly shrink down to one. Humans are great at adjusting to changing rules on the fly, such as guesstimating their following distance during a sudden rainstorm. But robots like fixed rules. They can't guesstimate.

That's why Google's self-driving car project, called Waymo, and every other carmaker, must deploy so many pilot programs in cities around the world, putting robots through millions of hours of "driver's ed." The machines create massive libraries of billions of scenarios that artificial-intelligence computers can later call up in a nanosecond. In essence, that eventually will enable them to simulate the right "guess" we perform seamlessly multiple times each day on roads worldwide.

To help study such challenges, Nissan hired scientist Maarten Sierhuis, formerly at NASA, who bluntly says: "Right now there is no computer system in the world smart enough to create full autonomy." That said, almost every carmaker says we will get there within a decade.

LEARN TO SPEAK DRIVER ASSISTANCE

Carmakers love to dream up fancy names for their assistance systems, but that nomenclature gets confusing fast. To help you better understand what the technology actually does, here's a quick index of terms used throughout this story.

• Advanced cruise control: Controls steering, throttle, and brake so you can safely follow the car ahead. Works even in stop-and-go traffic down to a full stop, and resumes speed once traffic begins moving, all without driver input.
• Automatic emergency braking: Reads the road ahead and applies the brakes to prevent an accident if the driver fails to slow down.
• Lane-keeping: Uses lasers and cameras to read the lane ahead and motors in the steering system to guide the car and prevent it from drifting out of its lane.
• Parking assistance: Reads open parking spaces and parks the car with little or no driver input - save tapping a button or perhaps the brakes - including into angled or parallel parking slots.
• Pedestrian detection: Works with emergency braking to prevent hitting something or someone in the road.

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