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One day -- sooner than you'd think -- you'll be able to purchase a new car that is fully capable of driving itself. Although it's still a few years off, many automakers now offer elements of what will become an automated-driving system. Infiniti's new-for-2013 JX35 offers just a taste of this technology.
The radar, sonar, lidar (which stands for light detection and ranging), cameras and brake/accelerator/steering actuators that will comprise these systems already are offered on some luxury production cars. An automated driving system will remain out of reach for most car shoppers for a while, but it's easy to imagine some driver-support systems becoming as common as electronic stability control or anti-lock brakes. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration already is advocating the use of frontal-collision-warning systems and lane-departure-warning systems, and it's proposing to make them mandatory on future vehicles.
We tested one automated-driving system, which Nissan calls Distance Control Assist, on the 2013 Infiniti JX. First available on the 2009 Infiniti FX, DCA determines whether braking is necessary to keep a specific distance between you and the vehicle in front of you. It's billed as a convenience tool meant to alleviate driver's fatigue in heavy-traffic situations that require frequent braking, Nissan says.
It's part of a slew of available driving aids available on the JX, including lane-departure prevention and blind-spot intervention, which brake specific front and/or rear tires when the car starts to drift or is about to merge into another vehicle on the highway. Unlike those systems, or the JX's Forward Collision Warning, the DCA system can be tested in non-threatening situations.
My 5-mile commute to work is the definition of gridlock. Every bit of my drive on downtown streets, the inner-city highway and neighborhood roads is lined with taillights. When I hit the JX's DCA button -- it's on the steering wheel and looks like a car with sonar waves around it -- it felt like an invisible force field surrounded the JX. The forward sensor can sense vehicles up to 490 feet in front of you and can automatically control the throttle and apply the brakes (up to 25percent of the vehicle's braking power) at varying degrees depending on the speed of travel, Nissan says. You have to be going at least 3 mph for DCA to work. Within 5 or 10 minutes, I was completely hooked on the feature.
With the DCA system -- once you feel comfortable and provided there's a vehicle you can follow slowly -- you nearly never have to hit the brake pedal … or at least I didn't. When you let go of the accelerator, the DCA system will automatically start to slow the JX as the car ahead of you brakes. If the vehicle in front of you pulls away, the brakes will ease up. If the vehicle you're following comes to a complete stop, so will the JX. A warning, however: The system will cancel after reaching a complete standstill; you'll start to creep along again if the vehicle is still in Drive and you're not pressing on the brakes. The system's braking felt nearly as natural as if I were braking, though I noticed a little more nosedive from the suspension than if I did it myself (that could just be my superiority complex talking).
I wasn't the only person enamored with the system. David Thomas, managing editor of Cars.com, said that DCA was the closest he has had a real car drive for him. Not every editor was so keen on the system, though. Others worried about creating a false sense of dependency, and I became aware of that after just a short usage. I could see someone abusing DCA so that they could text and drive, which Nissan discourages.
Nissan tries to alleviate that issue by requiring you to lift off the accelerator for the system to work. DCA does provide help in that regard by applying resistance to the accelerator pedal, signaling the driver to brake. If driver braking is required in cases of an emergency, the Forward Collision Warning system will kick in, too, with a warning chime.
Nissan's system is still evolving, and rapidly, too; there's a Navigation-Cooperative Intelligent Pedal system that soon will incorporate DCA and the vehicle's navigation system, giving DCA eyes to anticipate upcoming sharp turns and other fixed obstacles in the road.
Even more advanced systems from Ford, Volkswagen, Mercedes and Volvo either are on their way or already here. Volvo recently tested a more evolved system, which resembles DCA, on a convoy of Volvos traveling 125 miles at speeds of about 52 mph, according to the BBC.
And Google is testing and promoting an ambitious self-driving-car project.
We can't go driver-free just yet, but self-driving cars are headed our way soon.