Talk of autonomous vehicles is often directed towards the future, presented as part of a brave new world, possibly many years away, where self-driving cars will be a common sight on the world's roads. However, the truth is that the era of the autonomous vehicle is already upon us.
As Dr. Werner Huber, project manager Driver Assistance and Environmental Perception at BMW Group Research and Technology, explains, there are only two reasons why the roads are not already flooded with cars boasting this technology: "The technical realization is already today possible -- but only with a disproportionately high effort. The availability of sensors such as the laser scanners needed in our research car, in large quantities, as well as their costs presents a major challenge. In addition to the Vienna Convention from 1968 covering vehicle regulations, other issues, such as certification and liability, are important factors which are currently barriers for autonomous driving on public roads."
Josef Schloßmacher, Audi's PR Manager for Product and Technology concurs: "There are indeed regulations in most parts of the world restricting fully autonomous rides by very low speed limits, if not totally. So you may be allowed to park your car automatically, but not to drive faster than maybe 15 km/h. These limitations have to be changed to allow the already existing technology to be used in everyday traffic." Therefore it is these legal restrictions, rather than a lack of technological breakthrough, dictating progress and indeed the autonomous features built into existing vehicles and those coming in the product pipeline.
Google may have garnered many headlines when its autonomous vehicles appeared on the streets of California in 2012 and received special dispensation from the state to operate (as long as they were supervised by a driver), but in Germany, BMW alone has been developing and testing autonomous vehicles since 2005, and in 2011 started venturing out onto public highways with its fully adapted 5-Series sedan. The prototype can autonomously control acceleration and braking, and it can safely pass slower vehicles. What's more it can identify exit and entry roads and allow other vehicles to merge safely with traffic flow.
Likewise, one of the highlights of this year's CES was Audi's first public demonstration of its vision of autonomous driving. It showcased two vehicles, one which could drive autonomously in heavy traffic, and another that could park itself via remote control. When asked about when these technologies will become an everyday reality, Schloßmacher responds: "From the technical point of view, we are sure that a system as presented in Vegas, can be in the market not later than the end of this decade."
But availability and demand are not always the same thing. Bosch, a company with a huge investment in autonomous car technology, including the development and manufacture of sensors and fully autonomous systems for the automotive industry, commissioned a survey in 2012 to gauge opinion on this subject. It found that nearly one in three UK drivers would already consider buying a vehicle that could be driven autonomously. More than a quarter of drivers -- and more than half of young drivers -- said they would enjoy an autonomous car as much as driving themselves, but only in specific situations, such as daily commuting and on long, monotonous journeys.
As Dr. Huber points out, BMW, a company with a reputation for building drivers' cars, has explored all dimensions of all aspects of automating driving functions: "but whether it is parking, braking, low- and high-speed driving, our developments are always focused on the customer needs, not on the technology. We check the different automated functions to decide if they fulfill the customer value." And for this reason, the technologies it already offers as part of its ConnectedDrive package and its focus in the immediate future will be on systems that reduce stress. "In daily traffic there are many situations which are inconvenient and unpleasant for the driver, for example a traffic jam. We think in this specific situations automated driving functions could support the driver to generate another kind of driving pleasure. All automated functions are and will be designed to be overridden by the driver in every moment," he says.
Audi too, is aware that the type of customer and the type of car are just as important as the available technology: "There is of course a different demand for autonomous driving features depending on the typical traffic situations that you are in as well as on what type of driver you are. But even in a car as the R8 [Audi's flagship supercar] it can be quite relaxing if the car itself brings you through stop-and-go situations. But there are more and more situations in modern traffic limiting the freedom of driving on your own -- think about packed lanes on a highway in large cities, think about stop-and-go during long rush hours. In all these situations autonomous driving can really help the driver to relax or to stay connected to the world," says Schloßmacher.
As such, both BMW and Audi already offer intelligent cruise control functions, that match the speed of the vehicle in front and automatically apply the brakes if that vehicle slows down, and parking assist features that aid with steering and manoeuvring when negotiating entry into or exit out of a space. BMW also hopes to roll out its traffic jam assistant technology in 2014. But progress will be incremental, or so says Gerhard Steiger, president of the Bosch Chassis Systems Control division: "Fully autonomous driving will come about one step at a time. At first, driving on highways with an ever greater degree of automation and at ever higher speeds will be possible, until the highway pilot can take over the entire trip. But two major challenges remain: first, inner-city driving, since automated vehicle functions have to deal with dense traffic involving a large number of road users travelling in every direction; and second, developing a concept to ensure that the system's functions operate reliably in all types of driving situation."