Why self-driving cars are the future

Hollywood blockbusters Demolition Man, Minority Report and I, Robot, as well as classic TV show Knight Rider, all share one thing in common: autonomous, self-driving cars. Whilst KITT is by far the most famous, each of the films demonstrates just how easy life is when you don’t have to drive yourself. But how close to becoming reality are these?CHAL Banner

The thought crossed my mind as I’ve spent the last week driving around in a Lexus LS600h L, a behemoth of a car that packs a 5.0 litre V8 engine up front alongside an electric motor that put out some 439 bhp when working together. It’s the technology on board that got me thinking, though.

Specifically, it was a journey down the M11 that triggered things off. The M11 is never the most exciting of roads and sitting in a Lexus didn’t really add much, as the technology in the car meant I really didn’t do much.

In fact, I went a good 10 miles without touching either the pedals or the steering wheel. Given that I was in the LS600, I was tempted to climb in to the back seat and enjoy a massage, but I didn’t feel that the Essex constabulary would be particularly understanding in the event of a mishap.

I could do that because the Lexus, as with many cars, comes fitted with adaptive cruise control. That enables you to set a speed on a motorway and not worry too much if a car slows down in front of you; your car will pick it up on radar and slow down accordingly, getting back up to speed when the road is clear. Lexus have also fitted Lane Keep Assist, a system that reads the white lines on the road ahead and alerts you if you’re drifting wide.

That system also steers you down motorway lanes without any interaction from the driver, although try it on a twisty country lane and you’ll soon become acquainted with the local farmers.

Volvo has added pedestrian detection to the mix, bringing the car to an emergency stop if a wandering child steps out in front of you. If it does fail, there’s an airbag on the outside of the new V40 to make the impact more comfortable for little Timmy.

It’s the internet search engine giant Google that are pushing the boundaries though. For a little over two years they’ve been driving around California in a fleet of Toyota Prius with little to no human interaction. So far some 200,000 miles of autonomous driving has been completed, with just one accident recorded to date – and that was when a human was driving!

Google Self Driving Car 2010 FrontThe Google fleet (including one Audi TT) use video cameras, radar sensors, a position sensor attached to one of the rear wheels and a laser range finder to ‘see’ other traffic, as well as detailed maps (collected using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead. Google’s massive data centre’s then make sense of all that, allowing the car to make its own way down the road.

The technology has been developed so far that just last month Google sent one of their cars out on to the roads of Morgan Hill in California, taking in a drive-thru Taco Bell and a trip to the shops, all with a blind man behind the wheel.

Steve Mahan is, in his own words, “well past legally blind” having lost 95% of his vision, but the Google Prius gave him the ability to travel independently, run his own errands and meet up with friends.

That’s the big benefit of the self-driving revolution. Petrolheads like myself are generally against the whole idea of having control taken away from us, but there’s no doubt that autonomous cars, especially once they start communicating with each other, should reduce fuel use, reduce congestion and enable the ‘driver’ to be more productive – imagine spending your half hour commute to the office working and (in an ideal world) therefore spending less time in the office itself.

For people like Steve Mahan though, self-driving cars will be more significant. To enable a blind person to move around on the roads freely is not a game changer, it’s a life changer. Personal transport for those too disabled to drive even a Motability vehicle will transform their quality of life.

It’s for that single reason that I’m right behind autonomous vehicles. Motoring has always been about freedom, and to spread that freedom to more people can’t possibly be a bad thing. It’s a new technology, so one would hope any issues could be ironed out before the cars are ready for use.

There’s one other benefit for those with children; parents would no longer need to be on-call taxi drivers. In a self driving car, there’s no reason why you couldn’t pass your car keys to your 13 year old son who wants to go to go out with his friends. There’d be no danger of speeding, dangerous driving or showing off, just a sensible and safe journey to the cinema and back while the parents enjoy a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon whilst relaxed at home.

Given that, self driving cars can’t come soon enough!

[button link=”http://www.contracthireandleasing.com/car-leasing-news/why-self-driving-cars-are-the-future/” rel=”nofollow” color=”orange”]This article was first published at ContractHireAndLeasing.com on 19 April 2012.[/button]

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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, DAD.info and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.