There's something not quite right about the grin on the face of the man from Bosch in the driver’s seat of this blue BMW 3-series estate. It’s a bit too gleeful for somebody who is hurtling a car towards an obstacle at serious double-digit speeds. As my grip on the grab handle tightens, I can’t help but wonder if he actually enjoys scaring the bejeezus out of innocent passengers. About a metre remaining, 1000-watt grin still beaming, he calmly exclaims, “I let go now,” and takes his hands off the wheel. If I knew any German curse words, they’d have been uttered loudly by now. But, sure enough, the steering invisibly yanks itself left and then right, and the car automatically ABS-brakes itself to a clean, safe halt; no driver input whatsoever. It’s still scary, even though you’re expecting it.
If the only place you’ve seen the Bosch name is on your refrigerator or washing machine, that’s understandable, because when it comes to their automotive technology, it’s usually hidden away under your car’s skin. From fuel injectors to the brain that controls the safety systems, and every techie acronym in between – Bosch has a hand in it all.
But today, for the 2013 Bosch Automotive Press Briefing at the Boxberg proving ground in Germany, we’re not looking at what’s already in your car, but rather what could be in the near future. A lot of the industry’s now-ubiquitous technology originated at Bosch (ABS, for one), so there’s a good chance we’ll see the tech on display today in our cars in the coming years. Some of it is simple and clever (like wipers with water jets in the blades themselves) and some of it seems like science fiction, but all of it is geared at making motoring safer, easier and more efficient. It’s also worth noting that we’ve seen a lot of these concepts previously, but many of them have been greatly refined and updated this time around.
Take my apparent tryst with danger in the BMW earlier – collision detection has been around for a few years, but today’s system is quicker and more accurate than ever before. The sensors have evolved out of their large, chunky origins too, and Bosch showed off different cars equipped with tiny mono and stereo cameras as well as more conventional radar sensors. There’s simply too much to see here, so we’ll focus on a few interesting bits of tech that caught our eye
Coast to coast
The Boost Recuperation System (BRS) is the next evolution of the fuel-saving engine start-stop tech we’re already familiar with. After the engine cuts off at a traffic light, a small electric motor cuts in before the restart to give you instant power off the line. It also makes the engine stop-start transition much smoother and less perceptible. What’s more, it will also let the car ‘coast’, shutting off the engine every time there is no accelerator or brake input for more than a few seconds for even greater fuel savings. Bosch also says it’s very cost effective and can be applied to most existing cars.
When it comes to refining existing technologies, it’s not just about making them work better, but also making them more affordable. ABS for two-wheelers is one area where Bosch is working really hard to bring the costs down, because it understands that developing markets – of which it deems India as a high priority – have the greatest potential for improving rider safety. We could see it on our roads as soon as later this year.
Advanced parallel parking 101
Yes, a number of luxury cars now come with auto-parking systems that require only braking inputs from the driver. But what if, once you’re parked, there isn’t enough room for you to get out of the car? Bosch’s latest system requires zero driver input, apart from a safety kill switch. And the best part – you can operate it from your mobile phone while standing outside the car.
We’ve seen 360-degree cameras before too, particularly in luxury off-roaders that let you see exactly where each of the wheels is. However, this next evolution, which is still in its very early stages, lets you ‘step outside’ your car and navigate around the video feed in 3D – much like Google’s Street View. And it manages all this with just four cameras and a few parking sensors.
This is where all the various systems come together in their ultimate application – the car that doesn’t need you. Today it’s taken the form of a BMW 3-series with a boot full of computers and a massive, spinning laser scanner mounted to the roof. This scans not just for vehicles, obstacles and people, but also road signs, lane and divider lines, speed limits and much more. European road rules have been programmed into its brain, it can read traffic signals, and even at an open intersection, if a car is approaching, it will stay put. It uses radar cruise control to keep a safe distance from other vehicles, it will stop for errant pedestrians, and if you ask it to, it can even power through corners pretty briskly.
While a lot of the active and passive safety tech we’ve seen looks ready enough to show up in our showrooms tomorrow, it’s clear that most of the sensor-driven autonomous tech wouldn’t stand a chance in India. All the technology in the world couldn’t make a car drive on our chaotic roads without human input. But it’s a preview of what might just be possible further down the line; an eerie future where everyone is a passenger and road accidents are down to zero. For now though, I’ll do the driving myself, thanks.