Are driverless cars just around the corner?

4 October 2013
Driverless car

Driverless cars: is automated transport getting closer?

Automated transport has been a dream since the early days of science fiction, but is it realistic to imagine buying automated vehicles soon? Asks Ralph Adam.

We think of Fritz Lang’s flying cars in ‘Metropolis’ and the car that floats, flies and has a mind of its own in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. In a review, HG Wells described ‘Metropolis’ as an “idiotic spectacle“ perhaps because he felt Lang plagiarised his own 1899 novel ‘When the sleeper wakes’ in which Wells visualised roads in the form of travelator-like moving conveyors.

Now, however, automated transport is coming closer. France’s President François Hollande recently launched job regeneration plans focused on new technologies, including driverless cars. We already have driverless trains in many cities, while Heathrow airport has its automated ‘pods’; guided buses are becoming widespread. Several US states permit automated vehicles on their roads.

Soon we may see self-driving cars that can park, steer, stay in the correct lane and adjust their speed by locating the vehicles ahead. Google’s much-publicised automated Toyota, Audi and Lexus fleet, equipped with sensors, radar, cameras, lasers, and GPS is making serious progress. Meanwhile, a University of Oxford team has adapted a Nissan that is controlled by an iPad incorporated into its dashboard, reminiscent of the KITT K2000 from the 1980’s US TV series ‘Knight Rider’.

A European Commission study is investigating whether ‘event’ data-recorders should be compulsory, initially for commercial vehicles, to provide a better understanding of how accidents occur, while improving investigation techniques and encouraging safer driving.

However, new US vehicles already have gadgets measuring speed, acceleration, pedal effort, seat belt use, etc., although such ‘black box’ information is retained for only brief periods. Insurance companies would like to be able to download the data to allocate fault in accidents.

Automation is also being developed to control motoring. For example, the EC is assessing whether it should insist on automatic braking to stop drivers exceeding speed limits.

But is it realistic to imagine buying automated vehicles soon?

If driverless cars are to become popular, it will be necessary to redesign roads so that cars will be able to receive information on junctions, traffic and speed limits through sensors as well as having the capacity to ‘talk’ to one another. Maps will have to be re-thought and new types of driving tests introduced.

Changes in vehicle design and standards will also be necessary so that cars can cope with emergencies, equipment failures and, in the case of unmanned vehicles, theft. What, for example, should one expect the car to do on a narrow road if a head-on collision is likely? Will it decide to avoid a non-automatic bus and drive off the road, killing its passengers? How will it deal with pedestrians, cyclists and stray animals? Local authorities will need to invest in new digital infrastructures.

Can we allay drivers’ fears over the handling of their data? A majority of respondents to a US survey were worried that computer hackers could take control of automated vehicles.

With so much work to be done, it will be a while before you see driverless cars at your local dealer’s!

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