Taking ‘Eyes-Off’ the ADAS Future

Automakers and Tier 1 AV suppliers shift their automated-driving ambitions to “eyes-off/hands-off” technology that ushers in SAE Level 3 capability for personal vehicles.

Eyes-off/hands-off driving with BMW’s Personal Pilot L3, set for launch next spring in Germany. (BMW)

So-called “hands-off” driver-assistance systems are now ubiquitous enough that they scarcely merit particular attention — or explanation. They’re no longer exclusive to luxury brands, either; GM and Ford have migrated their respective Super/Ultra Cruise and Blue Cruise technologies to their mainstream models. But these systems’ one vexing tie to ADAS functionalities, as opposed to higher-level SAE Level 3 or Level 4 driving automation, is the requirement that the driver’s attention needs to remain fixed on the road ahead.

How Mobileye’s crowdsourced Road Experience Management onboard map data is continually updated. (Mobileye)

The vital next iteration of driving automation are “eyes-off/hands-off” systems that cut the cord with the harassing driver-monitoring camera that ensures drivers’ eyes are on the road when their hands are off the wheel — because their eyes no longer have to be on the road. Mercedes-Benz, the first OEM to market an eyes-off/hands-off system in the U.S. with its Drive Pilot, encouraged drivers at the media launch to play games on the test vehicles’ center touchscreen while Drive Pilot was engaged with navigating hardscrabble Los Angeles traffic. Principal suppliers and developers of eyes-off/hands-off technology agree that this is the realistic next phase in driving automation.

Bridging the SAE levels

Mobileye’s EyeQ microprocessor family is central to the company’s Chauffer Level 3 automated-driving system. (Mobileye)

If quickly-advancing sensor and computational innovations caused many developers to call expanded ADAS capabilities SAE Level 2 “plus,” then it’s tempting to consider eyes-off/hands-off tech as SAE Level 3-plus, some sources say. For a key developer like Mobileye, which is putting considerable effort into its eyes-off/hands-off “Chauffer” technology, the next step up from its Supervision “eyes-on” system seems to be leaning toward almost pure SAE Level 4 functionality.

In mid-2023, SAE Media spoke with Nimrod Nehushtan, Mobileye’s SVP of business development and strategy and co-manager of REM, the company’s Road Experience Management. REM is the “crowdsourced” high-definition digital map that Mobileye couples with its EyeQ 6H automation system-on-chip (SoC), as many as 11 surround cameras and some combination of lidar and radar sensors. Nehushtan said the constantly updated REM mapping is the difference-maker that Mobileye believes enables eyes-off/hands-off confidence with fewer conditional guardrails. Mobileye presents Chauffer as a graduated level of technology that progresses from a highway operational design domain (ODD) to secondary/rural roads and then to urban environments, which he said promise to be the most demanding.

Automakers and suppliers expect cost reductions in sensors to help enable cost reductions for eyes-off/hands-off automated-driving systems. The design of this 3D-printed radar antenna from Lunewave also helps to reduce demand on system processing. (SAE/Chris Clonts)

It’s an almost staggering concept. REM maps are updated with information gleaned from what cameras in Mobileye-equipped vehicles are seeing on every road — all over the globe. “Of course this is a complicated exercise to do — and this is what we have been perfecting in the last five-plus years working on this technology,” Nehustan said.

In 2022, he said, the number of vehicles that potentially could contribute to REM mapping – i.e. those equipped with an EyeQ chip — was some 33 million around the world, or 40% of vehicles sold. He added that in the last decade, there have been some 135 million EyeQ-toting vehicles sold. “And this number is increasing year-over-year in double-digit percentage, so the growth is still significant,” Nehustan added.

Mobileye’s progression of driving automation systems and their required technology. (Mobileye)

“In terms of capability, all cars are capable [of feeding into the REM system] today, because what you need is an EyeQ chip with cellular communication, which is today common in all new cars,” Nehushtan said. However, “There is a commercial aspect into creating the acceptance with our OEM partners to upload data from their cars, because we don't own the fleets. The OEMs have the fleet and the OEMs are engaging with the end user directly. So in order to make this a win-win situation, there is a commercial arrangement that we have in place.”

He conceded that the capability to contribute to the swarm-sourced REM maps isn’t yet directly related to the number of vehicles in the global vehicle parc that have an EyeQ chip. As of mid-2023, he said “we have around three million cars uploading data. In the U.S. alone we have more than a million. We have vehicles in Europe, China, Japan, Korea, all the different places in the world.”

Model of a complex roadway section In Mobileye’s Road Experience Management high-definition map that merges many different types of hard data with semantic and crowdsourced information. (Mobileye)

In the REM environment, vehicles send anonymized “localized” data to the map database in modestly-sized data packets of around 10 kb per kilometer, the company said. The REM map has no other sources of data. The “Mobileye Roadbook” map generates a dynamic history of how drivers are operating on a particular piece of road and doesn’t rely on any other map or information outside of the REM database.

In late August, 2023, Polestar confirmed its intent to use Chauffer for its Polestar 4 sometime after the EV’s global launch in 2024. “Mobileye Chauffeur will offer consumers a safer, accessible way to enjoy autonomous vehicles as the next revolution in personal transportation,” Mobileye president and CEO Amnon Shashua said as part of the Polestar announcement. “It’s the pinnacle of two decades of our experience applying AI in more than 150 million vehicles worldwide.”

Next Step for Ford, too

The eyes-off/hands-off environment is also in Ford’s crosshairs for the next phase of its well-received Blue Cruise hands-off ADAS. The company sees it as a logical progression in terms of revenue potential because it sees the Level 2 capability of today’s Blue Cruise as becoming commoditized technology for which customers may eventually resist paying premium subscription fees. And statements from Ford executives at its Capital Markets Day in May 2023 seem to indicate that many in the industry likely now equate eyes-off/hands-off capability as a prime differentiator between SAE Level 3 driving automation and Level 2 driver-assistance — although other conditions come into play.

“We want [SAE Level 3 functionality] to work everywhere BlueCruise works, and BlueCruise is going to expand where it works between now and when L3 arrives,” said Doug Field, Ford’s chief EV, digital and design officer, at the Capital Day gathering. “The key use cases that we

see are stop-and-go traffic, which is really tedious and actually a cause of a lot of accidents because people take their mind off of what's going on. And then steady-state cruise long trips in which the same thing you can tend to get bored or sleepy.

“So we want to start by being able to do that and now take your eyes off and then gradually, once we deliver that, start expanding [eyes-off/hands-off] into more and more and more areas. Downtown operation with pedestrians and stop signs and double-parked cars. That is the hardest possible place to get L3 up and going. And so that'll come last, but the reality is, it's not the most valuable place we can give customers autonomy.”

Ford is leveraging a collaborative approach to create an in-house eyes-off/hands-off system, employing its Blue Cruise development unit as well as resources from Latitude AI, the approximately 550-employee subsidiary Ford created when it absorbed elements of automated-driving startup Argo AI after that company shut down in October 2022. A Latitude spokesperson said the chief “product” the company is currently developing is an eyes-off/hands-off system. Sammy Omari, CEO of Latitude AI, also is executive director of ADAS Technologies for Ford. “There is a lot of close collaboration with the [SAE] Level 2 team at Ford,” the spokesperson said.

Field’s Capital Markets Day talk didn’t set a definitive timeline for eyes-off/hands-off production-vehicle readiness, however, saying only that it will be available on the company’s “Gen 2” EV platform sometime after it launches. “The evolution of autonomy is a journey,” he said. “There's not some gigantic breakthrough where all of a sudden you can turn on [Level 3 capabilities].”

What about the regs?

BMW announced in November, 2023 that it too will have a production model with eyes-off/hands-off capability when it launches its BMW Personal Pilot L3 for the 2025 7-Series that will be available in spring of 2024 — although exclusively in Germany at first. This brings up a central issue with SAE Level 3 systems: how they fit into the patchy global regulatory framework. The Volkswagen Group’s Audi brand was the first to run afoul of regulatory concerns when it launched its Level 3 Traffic Jam Assist in 2017.

Because there is no comprehensive regulation dealing with eyes-off vehicle operation, Mercedes-Benz’s Drive Pilot was set for sale in only two states, California and Nevada, that permit SAE Level 3 capability for personal vehicles on public roads. The company expects approval from more states, but there’s little clarity about how the progression can or will happen.

“This is why when Audi launched the 8, the current generation of A8, and talked about Traffic Jam Pilot, they ultimately abandoned it because there was no regulatory landscape,” said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst, eMobilty, at Guidehouse Insights. He said the situation is similar in Europe — although there is “a UNECE regulation that covers so-called Level 3 systems, There are something like 60 member countries that use the UNECE regulations. They each have to implement those regulations individually, and then get type approval. So, right now, Germany is the first one to grant type approval,” for Level 3-type eyes-off/hands-off capabilities.

There also remain concerns about the control “handoff” from automated-driving system back to the driver in situations when the system cannot operate – a crucial point that some critics still contend makes Level 3 systems unacceptably risky. But Abuelsamid and others point to deployment schemes that are shaping up to make the 2025 timeframe an inflection point for eyes-off/hands-off systems in a variety of production models.