It’s that time of year again, where the days get colder and more depressing – certainly in most of Europe. Everything becomes that little bit harder, whether it’s getting drenched while walking down the street, commuting on jam-packed trains in a thick coat or – in this case – driving.
None of us like driving in bad weather, from trying to avoid hydroplaning on the motorway to wheel spinning out of an icy predicament. This has been a problem ever since cars have been around; all-wheel-drive has helped many weather the storm but, certainly around this time of year, it’s going to take a lot more than a mechanical solution. Thankfully, automakers and suppliers have introduced many new connected technologies and, in the future, autonomous solutions should help vehicles stay out of trouble over the treacherous winter months.
Starting from the comfort of your home, some new vehicles feature the ability to remotely turn on the car’s heaters to precondition it for the driver. Unsurprisingly, remote start requests in the myChevrolet, myBuick, myGMC and myCadillac mobile apps increase to 84% in winter months, with an average of 19 million remote start requests per month vs 9.8 million average remote start requests in other months, according Stefan Cross of GM. Further afield, Tesla models can even precondition the batteries for better functionality in cold climates.
When It Rains, It Pours
Albert Hammond once sang “it never rains in Southern California.” However, in this case, the saying “when it rains, it pours” comes to mind. Californians are not accustom to slippery roads, so when it does rain, things can get a little out of hand. However, thanks to the power of technology, one California-based Tesla driver is less nervous when the sky opens up.
“When it rains, I use cruise control with long distance settings on my Tesla Model S,” says Stefan Marti PhD, Vice President of Future Experience at HARMAN, based in Mountain View, California. He is working with HARMAN on finding new ways to use sensors to deal with weather conditions, helping drivers avoid hydroplaning, skidding and other dangerous outcomes of bad weather.
Technology supplier Continental is also developing new safety systems in order to avoid accidents where the tyres lose traction and the driver loses control. “Hydroplaning requires fast speeds and water on the road,” says Bernd Hartmann, Project Manager at Continental.
Continental offers ‘Holistic Hydroplaning Solutions’ designed to help prevent and overcome aquaplaning situations. An electronic Tyre Information System (eTIS) warns the driver when it senses low tyre pressure or aggressive acceleration. The eHorizon system uses near-range cameras and connected vehicle information to understand the road ahead, again warning the driver of any incoming threats. Finally, ESC stability control helps the driver during hydroplaning by applying the rear brakes using torque vectoring to maintain manoeuvrability. Soon, with technology like this quickly improving, the days of hydroplaning will be gone.
Tech Can’t Always Help… Yet
Although Advanced Driver Assist Systems (ADAS) can help prevent and overcome issues found on wet roads, there are certain weather conditions that self-driving technology can’t help – for now.
For example, flooding caused by torrential rain is a huge problem for these systems. Intersections or freeways can flood with up to a couple of feet of water, as drivers attempt to wade across the intersection. Often on the news, four-wheel-drive vehicles are seen stuck in the middle of the intersection and can’t get out, which is rather embarrassing.
“My wife once got stuck in our old minivan for two hours,” says Marti. In another case, a Continental employee who was living in Chicago says that, while on the highway, cars were driving back in his direction during a rainstorm. When he drove further under the overpass, he saw a bunch of cars floating back at him so he turned around and drove back against traffic.
“Just because you have all-wheel drive, doesn’t mean you have a boat,” warns Hartmann.
Due to this, there are many good reasons why companies prefer to test their vehicles in warm climates like California or the Arizona desert. Sensors and cameras have an incredibly hard time dealing with rain, snow and fog. However, there are a few companies which deal with this problem head-on.
Take BlackBerry. The software company is headquartered in Waterloo, Ontario, which experiences a lot of snow. Its autonomous testing facility is a great place to understand how autonomous technology can operate in the snow. “We love snow,” says Grant Courville, Vice President of QNX Product Management and Strategy at BlackBerry, which is working on safety systems for snowy weather. “When driving in the snow, you have to look for variations, find edges to show where the curb is, snowplough marks and even follow cars ahead to be safe.”
Wet Weather Mode
From the car makers perspective, companies like Porsche are also pushing technology that offers better handling on wet roads. Its Wet Mode has been developed specifically for the next generation Porsche 911. The innovative assistance system can automatically detect a wet road and warn the driver about the risk of aquaplaning.
“Wet Mode was developed to provide the driver with consistent support in wet conditions. It does not restrict the maximum power of the engine or limit the top speed, and should therefore also not be used as insurance for driving too fast in very wet conditions. Instead, it should be seen as an assistance system in the truest sense,” says August Achleitner, the head engineer in charge of the 911 series.
So, the technology is being developed. But for now, says The Tire Rack’s Product Information Specialist Woody Rogers, the most important technology to deal with winter weather is a good set of tyres. “Because tyres are the only connection between the vehicle and the road, it is important to have good traction and for winter weather driving you should have winter tyres.” He also notes that drivers need to slow down and drive carefully. A car with all the high tech systems in the world is only as capable as its tyres.