Over the past few years, there's been a lot of chatter about building "smarter" cars -- cars that interact with other vehicles and the environment to make driving safer. Recently, we've seen Google rolling autonomous cars toward Nevada, the Department of Transportation testing vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology in six cities across the U.S., and Ford touting its own work in the V2V arena. Now, Volkswagen has thrown its hat in the ring, with a new "Temporary Auto Pilot" for cars.

The "Temporary Auto Pilot" (TAP) is part of an EU research project called "HAVEit", a slightly tortured acronym for "Highly Automated Vehicles for Intelligent Transport". According to a press release from Volkswagen, the TAP system permits cars to drive "semi-automatically" at speeds of up to 130 km per hour, or roughly 80 mph.

The TAP system seems to sit about halfway between fully autonomous cars and those with V2V systems requiring driver input. Using a network of cameras, radar, and ultrasonic sensors, TAP incorporates lane-assist, collision-avoidance, and other safety technologies, allowing drivers to take their hands off the wheel -- but not their eyes off the road. The Executive Director of Volkswagen Group Research, Prof. Dr. Jürgen Leohold, says that "the driver always retains driving responsibility and is always in control.... The driver can override or deactivate the system at any time and must continually monitor it."

In that sense, TAP sounds like a VERY high-end cruise control -- which could come in handy during certain drives. Leohold says that TAP might prove most beneficial "in monotonous driving situations, e.g. in traffic jams or over sections of a driving route that are exceedingly speed-limited".

What's particularly interesting about TAP is that it's based on near-production standards. In other words, while previous iterations of the system have employed technology that would be cost-prohibitive or otherwise unfeasible for widespread deployment, TAP could be installed on production vehicles (with a few modifications, we assume).

This is great news from Volkswagen -- and it's in keeping with the auto industry's general shift toward installing high-tech safety systems on everyday cars. For more info, check out VW's complete press release below.  

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Driving without a Driver – Volkswagen presents the “Temporary Auto Pilot”

Prof. Dr. Jürgen Leohold: “An important milestone on the path towards fully automatic and accident-free driving.”

Wolfsburg/Borås, 23 June 2011 - At the final presentation of the EU research project HAVEit (Highly Automated Vehicles for Intelligent Transport), Prof. Dr. Jürgen Leohold, Executive Director Volkswagen Group Research, has presented the “Temporary Auto Pilot” by Volkswagen: Monitored by the driver, the car can drive semi-automatically up to a speed of 130 kilometres per hour on motorways. It represents a link between today’s assistance systems and the vision of fully automatic driving.

"Above all, what we have achieved today is an important milestone on the path towards accident-free car driving," emphasises Leohold at today’s final presentation of the EU research project HAVEit in the Swedish city of Borås. The Temporary Auto Pilot (TAP) bundles semi-automatic functions, i.e. functions monitored by the driver, with other driver assistance systems, such as ACC adaptive cruise control and the Lane Assist lane-keeping system into one comprehensive function. "Nonetheless, the driver always retains driving responsibility and is always in control," continues Leohold. "The driver can override or deactivate the system at any time and must continually monitor it."

TAP always offers the driver an optimal degree of automation as a function of the driving situation, acquisition of the surroundings and driver and system states. It is intended to prevent accidents due to driving errors by an inattentive, distracted driver. In the semi-automatic driving mode – referred to as Pilot Mode, for short – TAP maintains a safe distance to the vehicle ahead, drives at a speed selected by the driver, reduces this speed as necessary before a bend, and maintains the vehicle’s central position with respect to lane markers. The system also observes overtaking rules and speed limits. Stop and start driving manoeuvres in traffic jams are also automated. With TAP, it is possible to drive at speeds of up to 130 kilometres per hour on motorways or similar roads. Drivers must still continually focus their attention on the road, so that they can intervene in safety-critical situations at any time.

In contrast to previous research vehicles such as "Junior" and "Stanley", TAP is based on a relatively production-like sensor platform, consisting of production-level radar-, camera-, and ultrasonic-based sensors supplemented by a laser scanner and an electronic horizon. "One conceivable scenario for its initial use might be in monotonous driving situations, e.g. in traffic jams or over sections of a driving route that are exceedingly speed-limited," comments Leohold.

About HAVEit

The EU funded R&D project HAVEit ("Highly Automated Vehicles for Intelligent Transport") was set up to develop research concepts and technologies for highly automated driving. This will help to reduce the drivers’ workload, prevent accidents, reduce environmental impact and make traffic safer. Launched in February 2008, 17 European partners from the automotive and supply sector and the scientific community collaborated on the project. Total investments in HAVEit amounted to EUR 28 million. EUR 17 million of this sum came from EU grants, and EUR 11 million was contributed by the 17 project partners, of which EUR 7 million was invested by the automobile industry. The HAVEit consortium consists of vehicle manufacturers, automotive suppliers and scientific institutes from Germany, Sweden, France, Austria, Switzerland, Greece and Hungary:

Continental, Volvo Technology AB, Volkswagen AG, EFKON AG, Sick AG, Haldex Brake Products AB, Knowllence, Explinovo GmbH, German Aerospace Center (DLR), Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), University of Athens, Institute of Communications and Computer Systems (ICCS), University of Applied Sciences Amberg-Weiden, Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Universität Stuttgart, Institut für Luftfahrtsysteme, Wuerzburg Institute of Traffic Sciences GmbH, Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique (Inria), Institut français des sciences et technologies des transports, de l'aménagement et des réseaux (IFSTTAR).