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 or light detection and ranging, cameras and brake/accelerator/steering actuators that will comprise these systems are already offered on some of today's 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 is already 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 such system on the 2013 Infiniti JX, which Nissan calls Distance Control Assist. First available on the 2009 Infiniti FX, DCA determines if 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, according to Nissan.
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-threating situations.
My five-mile commute to work epitomizes the definition of grid-lock. Every bit of my drive on downtown streets, the inner-city highway and neighborhood roads is lined with the red hues of taillights. When I hit the JX's DCA button — it's located on the steering wheel and looks like a car with sonar waves all around it — it felt like an invisible force field surrounded the JX. The forward sensor is capable of sensing vehicles up to 490 feet in front of you and can automatically control the throttle and apply the brakes (up to 25% of the vehicle's braking power) at varying degrees depending on the speed of travel, according to Nissan. You have to be going at least 3 mph for DCA to work. Within 5 or 10 minutes, I was completely hooked on the convenience 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. Once 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 let go. 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; then you'll start to creep along again if the vehicle is still in Drive and you're not holding on to 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. Cars.com's Managing Editor David Thomas said that DCA was the closest he's 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.
DCA technology is a testament to how quickly we've come in just a decade, from the widespread acceptance of electronic stability control to adaptive cruise control and self-parking systems and now to DCA. Nissan's system is still evolving, and rapidly, too; there's a Navigation-Cooperative Intelligent Pedal system that will soon incorporate DCA and the vehicle's navigation system, giving DCA eyes to predetermine upcoming sharp turns and other fixed obstacles in the road.
Even more advanced systems from Ford, Volkswagen, Mercedes and Volvo are either on their way or already here. Volvo recently tested out 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. We can't go driver-free just yet, but self-driving cars are headed our way soon — just look at Google's ambitious self-driving car project.