Venturing off-road in a four-wheel-drive SUV can whiten the knuckles of even experienced drivers. So, even as engineers race to bring self-driving cars to paved roads, Land Rover is harnessing similar technology to help vehicles navigate the roughest terrain. The British automaker’s latest advance, which it calls Clear Sight Ground View, provided a literal eye-opener in Greece during my test of the sumptuous new Range Rover Evoque.
Like every new bit of semiautonomous tech, the groundbreaking system expands on an existing suite of hardware, sensors, and software. The latest Rovers could already robotically manage their acceleration, braking, suspensions, and four-wheel-drive traction well enough to tackle daunting climbs and descents and traverse terrain that would rattle the nerves of off-road novices. All that was left for the human driver was to steer, which reduced the mental and physical workload. Now, Clear Sight Ground View removes even more stress and uncertainty from the equation. At speeds up to 30 kilometers per hour (18 miles per hour), forward-facing cameras mounted on the side mirrors and front grille deliver a 180-degree view of the front wheels and the ground beneath and ahead of the vehicle—a perspective that’s typically obscured by the hood of a high-riding SUV.
This real-time view is fed to the Evoque’s center touch screen, along with a graphical, transparent overlay of the vehicle’s sides and corners. Computer controls slightly delay the images from the front camera and stitch them together with side-mirror views to create a seamless real-time feed. Rover engineers say the system makes the Evoque’s hood—or, these being Brits, its “bonnet”—virtually see-through. It’s definitely like having another set of eyes outside the vehicle. And that’s precisely the point.
Proponents of autonomous cars talk about replacing fallible drivers, but the Rover system could help replace another occupation: the spotter that traditionally guides an off-road adventurer through particularly tricky off-road obstacles. When I aimed the Evoque up a steep, narrow goat trail overlooking the Aegean Sea, the virtual view showed precisely where my front wheels were pointed, as well as the rocks and ruts I needed to clamber over or steer around. This eliminated any need to have a passenger climb out and hand-signal me as I picked my way up the slope. The system again came in handy on a vertigo-inducing crossing of a rusting, out-of-service railway bridge that spans the Corinth Canal, the spectacular shipping channel that separates the Greek mainland from the Peloponnese peninsula. The screen view offered precise, reassuring confirmation that my wheels were straddling the railroad tracks, and that I wasn’t at risk of making a roughly 90-meter plunge to the azure waters below.
Speaking of water, the all-new Evoque can ford bodies of water up to 60 centimeters (23.6 inches) deep—or 9.9 cm deeper than earlier models could withstand. To be on the safe side, a new ultrasonic sensor measures and displays the water’s depth as you proceed, again bypassing the need for guesswork, a pair of waders, or a sharp stick to poke into a rushing stream.
It’s all very clever. But for this off-roading fan, foolproofing the experience with electronic guardian angels raises some important questions: Isn’t doing it yourself half (or even more than half) the fun of trekking an SUV through challenging terrain? Isn’t experiencing the attendant sense of adventure and overcoming obstacles skillfully the point of the exercise? Would Lewis and Clark have preferred a mountain-lion sensor and a set of Google Maps? (OK, it’s a definite “yes” to the third question.)
Nathan Hoyt, U.S. communications chief at Jaguar Land Rover, the marque’s parent company, notes that engaging the various helpers is optional. Owners are welcome to do it the old-fashioned way, relying on their own skills and senses when traveling off-road. But expensive as Range Rovers are, Clear Sight Ground View will likely find its primary use in keeping them pristine when negotiating urban and suburban obstacles such as narrow passages or tall curbs. The viewpoint it provides lowers the odds of scraping a pricey alloy wheel on a curb or dinging a body panel on the base of a light post in a shopping mall parking lot.
Furthermore, says Hoyt, “the [new suite of driver assistance] systems will help you get up a steep driveway in winter, or across a muddy soccer pitch without getting stuck.” In other words, even if your posh Rover spends more time in valet lines than the rugged wilderness, these technologies may still come to the rescue.