We’ve seen it in movies — the car that accelerates, steers and brakes without needing any instructions. What if that were possible in real life, and not just on the big screen, aided by fancy graphics? Will you someday be able to relax as the car whisks you to work? Experts say yes, you will.
What’s available now?
Anti-lock brakes and stability control are seen as an everyday kit, but more advanced systems are arriving. Already, some cars can sense if you are tired or falling asleep and, if you do start to nod off, the car will alert you audibly to keep you awake. Advanced stability control systems help you regain control or prime the airbags and seatbelts for a crash.
Cruise control has been around for decades, but the latest systems will keep you at a safe distance from the car in front as speeds change in stop-start traffic. The newest — Mercedes’ Distronic Plus — works if you are travelling at speeds of up to 100mph.
Cars have also started to steer themselves. Some Hondas can monitor road markings to keep you within your lane on the motorway, although you still have to hold onto the wheel.
What’s next — and why?
Minoru Shinohara, Nissan’s senior vice-president in charge of advanced technology, believes there will be scope for cars to drive themselves — up to a point. “When we think of some single situation, like a specific highway lane for long-range driving, I think this is technically possible.”
Systems such as cruise control and lane-keep-assist could be developed fairly easily for automation in the simple world of the motorway.
Cars will travel nose-to-tail, which will cut congestion and, thanks to less drag, also reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Shinohara reckons CO2 output can be cut by 10 to 20 per cent, an improvement that an engine development team would kill for.
There will probably be safety benefits, too, because most accidents today are down to human error. That said, manufacturers are reluctant to put a figure on how much of an improvement automation may bring.
However, if we want our cars to provide a door-to-door service, they’ll have to deal with more complex roads. Volkswagen has a Golf GTI that can steer through tight handling courses, but it can’t handle the many variations of city streets.
Its computer would have to avoid other cars — some of them, perhaps, still driven by humans — and deal with traffic lights, road signs, junctions and people. It would have to be able to swerve to avoid a child running out into the road, and tell the difference between a drunk waving his arms and a workman directing traffic.
When can we drive a fully automated car?
Shinohara believes it will be decades before full automation of driving is possible away from the motorway: “It will take a long, long time to make it reality — 10 or 20 years or more.” While automated cars might be better drivers than humans most of the time, the technology is unlikely to ever be 100 per cent reliable. It could be a legal minefield and manufacturers could be held responsible in crashes involving autonomous driving.
Martin Bare, president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, thinks liability will continue to rest with the driver as long as they keep a “guiding hand” in the process.
Ron Munro of Zurich Insurance agrees: “For a considerable period of time, we are going to have driver interaction and, while we have that, drivers will be liable.”
A fully automated car faces major hurdles, but there’s no doubt that cars today do more for us than ever before, and that technology will spread and expand to make motoring in the future easier, safer and more cost-effective.