Manual roll-down windows to embedded entertainment systems and real-time weather reports. Satellite navigation to predictive traffic support, smart parking, and over-the-air upgrades. Cars have come a long way in a relatively short period of time.
Increasingly, automobiles are becoming more complex, transformed from the purely mechanical to connected machines that can interact with the environment, other products, and us.
Driverless cars, the upside
Driverless capability, a combo of old and new technologies, is arguably one of most exciting advancements in the automotive industry to date. It could provide the solutions to some significant problems, from the prevention of traffic accidents to the end of wasted urban space and life-sucking traffic jams.
“If self-driving vehicles become a reality everything from how we move goods to how we move ourselves around is ripe for change,” writes Gary Silberg and Richard Wallace of the Center for Automotive Research in a recent article.
One of the biggest benefits to driverless cars could be safety. A car that’s aware of its surroundings and can judge and avoid potential hazards quicker and more accurately than a human has great potential. By some estimates driverless cars could eliminate up to 82 percent of vehicle crash scenarios involving unimpaired drivers, for instance.
The driverless promise has many automotive manufacturers, as well as environmental and safety groups, spearheading projects and testing their own technology.
Europe based SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) is one of the more interesting groups testing out self-driving technology. It’s “road train” concept, whereby a lead vehicle with a professional driver takes responsibility for a platoon of autonomous vehicles, has gained a lot of positive attention.
Are we ready?
Driverless cars may be exciting in theory, but we’re still not sold of the technology behind it. A recent poll by market research firm Harris Interactive, finds that nearly nine out of 10 American adults fear driverless advances, citing hardware and software failures, and concerns over security breaches from hackers and malware.
Leaders in driverless tech
Luxury brands Acura, BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo all have some version of driverless tech, or more accurately, driver-assist capability. Honda, GM, Ford, and Toyota have offerings in this area too. Capabilities include advanced cruise control, lane departure warnings, blind-spot monitoring, and emergency braking.
Toyota has some leading edge technology like pedestrian avoidance and braking, vehicle-to-vehicle wireless communications, and a best-in-class lane keeping system. But much of this is still in the testing phase and not available to the public.
Audi’s autopilot feature is one of the best out there. Traffic Jam Assist allows the driver to relinquish control when driving becomes a bore, like in heavy traffic. And the good news, Traffic Assist could be installed in production vehicles within the next two years.
Volvo, known for its safe cars, already has the driverless building blocks in place. The auto company recently announced a large-scale autonomous driving pilot project in partnership with Swedish City of Gothenburg.
The aim of the project is to identify the societal benefits of autonomous driving, as well as help the automaker fine-tune its technology (user interface and cloud functionality).
The first autonomous offering from Volvo will be rolled out in Sweden in the next three years.
Google is probably the closest to what we might think of as a truly autonomous car. It’s years ahead of everyone else in terms of aligning all the technology required for a truly hand-off driving experience. But it’s unfair to compare Google head to head with the rest of the crowd. Google will probably never bring its own branded vehicle to market. Instead it will sell its technology to established automakers like Toyota.
Cars of the future won’t look like cars at all
Today “driverless” cars look a lot like any other car. Steering wheel, pedals, gears, and upright seats are standard for Volvo, Mercedes, Google, and the rest.
But what might a driverless car of the future look like?
Swiss thinktank Rinspeed has some interesting ideas. It’s Xchange concept car, debuted at the Geneva Motor Show last month, has swivel seats that can tilt and slide into 20 positions, letting passengers in the front turn to face backwards, recline, and watch a 32-inch screen.
The steering column can be moved into the center for easier use of an information and entertainment system running the length of the dashboard, which includes two pivoting LCD displays with Internet access and video conferencing capability.
The most challenging part of the design? It was all built inside a Tesla Model S.
It would have been easier in a van or stretch limousine, says Rinspeed.
How do you envision the car of the future?
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Image courtesy of Rimspeed