Going Hands-Free : Autonomous Cars

Experts predict that autonomous self-driving cars will be on our roads as soon as 2020, but there are still plenty of questions that need to be asked.

Autonomous cars will be on our roads by 2020

Pretty much every car manufacturer has proven – or is busy proving right now – that it can make a car drive by itself. Indeed, semi-autonomous cars are already on our roads, and intelligent drive programmes, adaptive cruise control, active lane assist, blind spot assist, night-view, and parking aid are just some of the functionalities taking charge of our cars.

Building on these cornerstone technologies, leading car manufacturers such as Volvo, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Ford, and Audi are already testing fully-autonomous prototypes, which, equipped with 360 degree cameras, sensors, ultra-sonic sensors, lasers, and radars, are traversing motorways across the world.

Experts, including Mark Fields, CEO of Ford now predict that autonomous self-driving cars will be in use in controlled environments, such as motorways, as soon as 2020.

Audi sends a self-driving RS 7 around Formula 1 racetrack

Audi is perhaps the most advanced yet, as it displayed in late 2014 when it sent a self-piloted RS 7 speeding round the Grand Prix race track in Germany’s Hockenheimring. Precisely manoeuvring turns and hitting a highest speed of 149 mph, the autonomous car completed the lap in roughly 2 minutes 10 seconds, just 30 seconds slower than the professionally-trained humans. In a second stunt, in January of this year an A7 Sportback piloted itself over 550 miles from San Francisco to Las Vegas, where it made a dramatic entrance at the CES Show.

VIDEO : Audi RS 7 Concept Piloted Driving On Racetrack

Audi, just like other leading car manufacturers, has been quietly working on autonomous functionality – what it calls piloted driving – for the past fifteen years. The company has installed small technologies one by one as each has been proved successful and reliable. And every part of this little-by-little process has been about making the driving experience safer, easier, more comfortable, and more luxurious for the consumer.

Google covers 700,000 miles of real road

But car manufacturers are, of course, not the only ones working on autonomous driving. Indeed tech-giant Google, who announced its intentions to release a fully autonomous car in a blog post in 2010, is rather stealing the headlines.

And unlike the players in the traditional car industry, gung-ho Google is trying out a rather different tack. The self-driving Google car will be launched as the company’s commercial debut. And since testing began in 2010 in Nevada, the prototype – a distinctive, two-seater bubble car – has been taken through countless real life, real road situations, and has been improved step by step as it goes. So far the company’s cars have covered more than 700,000 miles of real road, and large-scale street testing is due to begin in California. Google’s policy is rather more: ‘we want to build a driverless car so let’s give it a go and see what happens’.

Who will do it best ?

Will a Google car ever compete with a Mercedes or an Audi? Does the company know enough about cars to create one that people want to buy? Or will the bold, dive-in-head-first Silicon Valley attitude in fact see the better results? Where Audi and Mercedes have the experience, they also have a consumer base who may not be ready to change. Google, on the other hand, is almost creating a whole new place in the car market.

The Google car will also have certain tech advantages. For example, the enormous Google data centres that will process the company’s manually collected, highly-detailed maps, before sending them to be deciphered by the car’s computer on-board.

But the most important question is who will consumers really trust? This may not be a race to be the first to launch, but a race to be the first to prove it will not have an accident.

Regulating autonomous cars

There are also other questions to answer. While tests of Google cars so far seem to demonstrate that a fully autonomous car might be safer than one with a driver – over one million people die in traffic accidents every year and most of those accidents are caused by drivers themselves –, who will be at fault if an autonomous car crashes?

And how will governments create a framework for the integration of autonomous cars into the current system? Four American states have now passed laws allowing driverless cars to actually hit the roads, but we are still awaiting the accompanying regulations. And no government will want to make a mistake, because when it comes to cars, mistakes cost lives.

The message seems clear that autonomous is the future of driving. But it also seems clear that it won’t be technology that holds back any advance.

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