Computers at the wheel in driverless market

Car makers have been working hard on systems in anticipation of technology getting the green light


Imagine a time when you summon your car to your front door at the touch of a button, climb into the driver’s seat and catch up with the morning’s news as your vehicle takes you to work. Or maybe you use the journey to catch up with some work before you get behind your desk.

Either way, the car takes over the tedious task of the commute, leaving you free to concentrate on something else.

The idea of a car that will drive itself isn’t that far fetched, and if the car manufacturers have their way, it won’t be that long before we see it in vehicles on our roads.

And consumers are already anticipating the technology, with a recent survey from Cisco revealing that more than half of consumers would be likely to travel in an autonomous car. The figure varied across the different countries, with the highest rate in Brazil, where 96 per cent would trust technology that would eliminate the need for a human driver, followed by India at 86 per cent and China at 70 per cent. And just under half of consumers would allow their children to travel in driverless cars.

Safety and convenience are the main drivers of the technology, with automated vehicles removing the element of human error from driving, and in theory reducing accidents. The technology could also help reduce congestion on the roads and pollution.

Although we may be still a few years off from fully automated vehicles hitting the streets, car makers have been hard at work perfecting the systems so they will be ready to go as soon as the technology is widely licensed for use on public roads.

BMW is one such firm. The company has been testing a car that will take over some of the more tedious parts of the commute, changing lanes and altering speed to fit the traffic conditions.

The car has been kitted out with a range of sensors, laser scanners and cameras that allow it to perform these tasks, which BMW refers to as “highly automated driving”.

Unlike fully automated driving, the driver retains some element of control over the car, able to step in at a moment’s notice should anything unexpected happen.

The car detects speed limit signs, keeping you on the right side of traffic laws. And when it moves to change lanes on your behalf, it will even use the indicator, a requirement that some human drivers fail to observe on a regular basis.

But BMW admits that its highly automated car is still some way off.

“It’s a future vision that will take some time before it gets into serious production,” said BMW’s Peter Quintus.

Time is needed for laws to catch up with the technology, and also for a commercially viable product to be refined.

In the meantime, the company is kitting out its cars with what it calls ConnectedDrive, a system that covers everything from traffic information and navigation to entertainment and internet access in the car, but has one common thread: a built in sim card that will be factory installed in all BMW cars by 2015. This will give them the ability to connect, even if owners choose never to activate the sim card.

The ConnectedDrive system will have its own app store as BMW works with third party providers to adapt their applications for use in the car.

“Customers want to get the world they are familiar with from the PC and phone into their car,” said Quintus. However, he warned that the usage requirements are different, requiring BMW to work with the firms to make sure the apps are suitable for in car use in terms of readability and usability in the different platform.

The system would allow you to customise your car in the way that you currently customise your smartphone or laptop, allowing you to upgrade your car with new software at the touch of a button, and without ever having to bring it to a garage.

The company is at the forefront of change, rather than just talking about it Quintus said.

BMW isn’t the only company looking at automated driving features. Google has also been hard at work on driverless cars, and has racked up more than 300,000 miles testing the cars in the US, without a single accident being attributed to its technology.

There have been two accidents recorded, but one was when the car was being driven manually and the second was when one of its autonomous cars was rear ended by another vehicle while stopped at traffic lights.

Nevada, California and Florida currently have legislation that allow the vehicles to be tested on roads, with Nevada the first state to pass the required legislation.

At this year’s CES show, Audi was among the car makers that showed off its vision of the future. Along with better in car entertainment, navigation and integration with smartphones, that vision includes a car that will not only park itself but will hunt down the parking spot for you, and pick you up at the touch of a button.

Audi refers to it as piloted driving, which requires a network of sensors in the car that can not only identify obstacles and avoid them accordingly, but communicate with systems in the car parks, allowing the two to talk to each other and identify empty spaces. In Audi’s ideal world, car parks would implement these systems, allowing shoppers to instruct cars to pick them at a certain time through the Audi app.

The company was demonstrating the technology at CES in January, with the Audi Connect car.

The company, like Google, has been awarded a licence to test the vehicles on public roads in the state of Nevada.

“We are assuming that a series-built vehicle with a piloted driving function will be technically feasible this decade,” Audi chief Rupert Stadler said at the Handelsblatt Annual Conference in Munich a few weeks later.

Toyota is also following a similar line. It is developing technology that will help reduce accidents and fatalities, but that could eventually be used as part of an autonomous vehicle. At CES, it displayed a research vehicle that will be the test bed for Lexus and Toyota’s technologies.

“Simply put, our goal is to eliminate future traffic fatalities and injuries,” Lexus group vice president Mark Templin said as he unveiled the company’s advanced active safety research vehicle.

“It’s probably fair to say that for most people the term autonomous is synonymous with driverless,” he said. “At Lexus, that’s only part of the story. Instead, we believe that in our pursuit of developing more advanced automated technologies the driver must be fully engaged in the operation of the vehicle at all times.”

Instead, Lexus sees the new technology as an “intelligent, always-attentive co-pilot”.

It may be some time before we see the technology on Irish roads, however. The idea of a driverless car throws up a few more ethical conundrums that must be solved before the technology is widely available. For example, if a driverless car is involved in an accident, who is responsible – the person travelling in it, who instructed the car where to go, or the manufacturer who designed the systems to enable it to get there?

The driverless car is supposed to make the roads safer, but the potential for accidents to occur must also be taken into account.

In the meantime, there are already a certain number of automated features in some cars, with cruise control being top of the list. Parking sensors are giving way to automated parking. Accident prevention technology allows cars to pick up the potential for a collision, for example when a car in front brakes sharply, or a pedestrian suddenly steps out in the front of the car. There is also technology that controls lane discipline, ensuring drivers don’t drift aimlessly.

The crucial difference though is that this technology can be disabled by the driver quickly and easily when needed, for example by touching the brake, meaning the driver retains full control over the car.

But with car companies determined to innovate, the future is looking a little more automated – and maybe a little safer - for drivers.