How autonomous features work in the Chrysler Pacifica.
Like many who drive new cars, I pretty much accept the newest technologies with a “wow” or a “huh” but I rarely think about how these safety features work. At the Fiat Chrysler Proving Grounds in Chelsea, Michigan, I got a hands-on look into how many of these technologies operate in the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica and other Fiat Chrysler vehicles.
The first thing cars with advanced safety features like forward collision warning need is a long range radar, which the Pacifica has right under the Chrysler name plate on the front of the car – it’s that thing that resembles a black eyeball. This radar scans the area in front of the minivan, detecting objects up to 200 yards away.
Yes, your car is talking to itself
Next, the vehicle has a front mounted camera that communicates with the radar. The camera and radar systems are in constant communication, sharing data and figuring out when a car or person is crossing in front of you (forward collision warning with pedestrian detection). This same system is used in all Fiat Chrysler vehicles with advanced safety features. To avoid schmutz, the camera is positioned in the path of the windshield wipers; the radar is heated so if it gets packed with snow, the heat will melt it away.
I always wondered why the forward collision feature only brings your car to a complete stop when you are going 20 miles per hour or less. Well, even though the car has a rear camera, there is no guarantee that if you (or the car) suddenly slam on the brakes at higher speed, you won’t cause a rear end collision. So at speeds higher than 20 mph, if the car senses an imminent front collision, the Forward Collision Warning with Active Braking System applies the brakes and slows down to mitigate a crash. It also offers audible and visual cues to prompt the driver to brake.
Customizing your autonomous vehicle
If you live in New York City, or another crowded urban area, lane detection warnings and rear cross traffic alerts can be annoying because the tight roads mean that you are constantly riding the line, or coming close to other cars. The Pacifica lets you customize your warnings – letting you set a wide berth if, say, your driving is mostly confined to the wide open lanes of a Texas highway. Or, if you are like my husband – who resents the indictment of his driving skill should he drift too close to a line – you can set the warning to early, medium or late intervention, and the torque (or pull back into your lane) to low, medium or high.
The LaneSense Lane Departure Warning with Lane Keep Assist works with the cameras on the car to ‘see’ the lane markings, so if you are driving on snow covered roads, or old roads with faint line markings, this feature won’t work.
Those same cameras, along with the radar, make the adaptive cruise control truly autonomous. If you encounter stop and go traffic, the Pacifica can go from highway speeds to a complete stop, then bring you back up to speed when the traffic clears.
Look Ma, no hands
The Pacifica also has both parallel and perpendicular park assist, called Parksense rear park assist. Twelve ultrasonic sensors – six in front of the car and six in back- monitor the space around the car.
I tested out the perpendicular park feature and it was truly remarkable. It works by pushing a button marked “P” on the center console and driving slowly, looking for a spot. When the minivan identifies (through its cameras and radar) that a big enough spot exists – in this case, one that is two feet longer than the car – instructions pop up on the dashboard. The first thing you do is put the car in reverse – and take your hands completely off the wheel. The Pacifica backs itself into the spot at the correct angle while you give it gas. At just the right moment, you get your next message – put the car in drive, and give it gas. The steering wheel spins as you move forward. Then one final maneuver back and you are perfectly parked.
The parallel parking assist works much the same way. Although I consider myself something of a parallel parking champion, this feature parks the car much more quickly and there is no smacking the bumper in front or back. I imagine the first 30 or 40 times you do this, your kids will be mesmerized and stop poking each other long enough to watch the car magically park. In fact, when I tested out the parking assist, several guys watching insisted that I must have been turning the wheel; they couldn’t believe the car had parked itself so quickly and accurately.
Those cameras and sensors that help you park also give you a 360 degree view so when you are pulling out of a driveway or other parking spot, you can see everything around you. Instead of just a rear view camera, you can get surround view.
For all its autonomous features, there is one thing the Pacifica can’t do. It comes with a built-in vacuum cleaner, but you have to do your own vacuuming. Hey Chrysler, how about a sensor that tells my kids, “you dropped crumbs all over the back seat, it’s time to clean up!”
Note: I was a guest of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles at the Chelsea Proving Grounds; opinions expressed are my own.