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Driverless Cars: The Future of Motoring?

August 21, 2013

Once the stuff of science-fiction, driverless (or autonomous) cars are now very much a feasible reality and, with major manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz and General Motors on board, not to mention upstarts like Google, driverless cars could be coming to a road near you in the not-too-distant future. But should this be a cause for celebration, or unease? Certainly many people are likely to be unsettled by the concept of cars driven solely by computers, but are their concerns justified?

The concept of the driverless car dates back to the 1920s and 30s, when innovators like Achen Motors and Norman Bel Geddes demonstrated early radio-controlled vehicles. Although the idea never caught on, the seed was planted and world automotive leaders General Motors and Mercedes-Benz both spent time developing driverless systems in the 1960s and 1980s respectively. GM’s work relied upon the idea of “smart roads” − a system founded on electronics embedded into the road surface, while Mercedes-Benz went down the “vision-guided” route, using a system of interconnected cameras to guide their vehicle.

The 1990s saw the involvement of the US Federal Highway Administration (FDA). Working with General Motors and UC-Berkley among others – with a budget of around $90 million – the project demonstrated just how seriously people were beginning to take the concept of driverless cars. These developments resulted in a demonstration of twenty different vehicles, driving effectively in both driverless-only and mixed driver and driverless traffic. In the 2000s, the US military pushed this technology forward, developing driverless vehicles capable of navigating off-road and handling obstacles such as rocks and trees on uneven terrain. These systems relied on existing technologies such as radar, lidar, GPS and computer vision to develop safe, dependable guidance systems.

Throughout the early 2000s, the Netherlands became a trailblazer in driverless vehicle technology, when the autonomous ParkShuttle service began running in Rotterdam. Active between 1999 and 2005, the ParkShuttle made use of an electronic trail embedded in the road-surface and ran on a dedicated route, closed to other vehicles. In its six years of service, the ParkShuttle was only involved in one recorded accident. On the 6th December 2005, two of the shuttles collided on a bridge, following a loss of communication with the central computer. No passengers were on board at the time and nobody was injured, but, as the route in question had been in place only a week, the system was subsequently decommissioned. The ParkShuttle’s owner and operator, Frog Navigation Systems, was declared bankrupt in 2007.

Failures like this have not discouraged other innovators, however, with the ‘Google driverless car’ project being one of the most high profile attempts to produce truly autonomous vehicles.  The Google team, led by engineer Sebastian Thrun (co-inventor of Google street view), developed a system effective enough to win the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge and its $2million dollar prize, sponsored by the US Department of Defence. Google’s system is one which can be fitted to existing cars, making it highly flexible, and has currently been tested in six Toyota Priuses, an Audi TT, and three Lexus RX450hs. Google plans to market the technology to other manufacturers, meaning that we could see this kind of technology worldwide within the next few years.

From a safety perspective, cars fitted with Google’s system have so far only been involved in two recorded accidents, one when the vehicle in question was under manual control, and the other when the Google-controlled vehicle was rear-ended while stationary at traffic lights.

Google are by no means the only ones moving forward with driverless technology. The 2014 BMW i3, to be released later this year, will be able to steer, accelerate and break in traffic jams at up to 25mph. The 2014 Mercedes S-class, also to be released in 2013, will be capable of steering, braking, accelerating, parking, helping to avoid accidents and detecting driver fatigue – all autonomously, at up to 124mph. By 2014, Volvo intend to have vehicles on the road which will drive autonomously at up to 31mph.

All of these imminent releases are intended primarily or exclusively for use in traffic, where vehicles will be travelling at low speeds with minimal manoeuvring options, reducing the chance of accidents. As such, they will be a great way for manufacturers to dip their toes in the water and see exactly how ready normal drivers are to relinquish control of their vehicles. If these new innovations prove popular, expect to see increasingly sophisticated autonomous vehicles hitting the tarmac soon.

About The Author

Jon Le Roux is co-founder and company director of The Car Loan Warehouse. Being a mad engineering and motorsport enthusiast, I spend more hours than is healthy, watching, reading or talking about cars, boats, motorbikes…..basically anything with an engine.