Driverless Cars: future becoming the present

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After Oxford research brought the UK a step closer to driverless cars, Tanja Collavo analyses the feasibility of self-driven transport

In recent years there has been a progressive sophistication of technology in cars. On the one hand the developments in information technology have allowed car manufacturers to equip most of their recently-launched vehicles with phone interfaces, Bluetooth, WiFi connections and smart navigation systems, making journeys easier more enjoyable. Yet customers’ increasing safety concerns, EU regulations and stronger need of differentiation in a struggling market have pushed for the introduction of “intelligent” safety devices such as lane departure warning systems, adaptive cruise control and automatic breaking. As a consequence, people no longer need to be James Bond to sit in a car full of gadgets.

With such a technological potential already available in most luxury cars and in many lower-segment ones as well, it could be predictable that universities, research centres and car would soon proceed to the next step of mobility development: driverless vehicles.

At the Frankfurt Motor Show, held in October 2013, Mercedes-Benz presented its S-Class S 500 Intelligent Drive concept car, able to drive in complete autonomy for 100km between Mannheim and Pforzheim, effectively dealing with traffic issues with no human intervention or accidents.

Nissan and Tesla quickly followed, announcing in the same month their respective projects on driverless vehicles. Tesla merely presented its intention to roll-out a fully self-driving car within the next three years, whilst Nissan unveiled its first Autonomous Drive Leaf in Japan, allowing journalists to try it out themselves.

Even earlier than that, some car manufacturers had joined the Google Driverless Car project, aiming to develop software for self-driving cars. The latter has already been experimented on US roads from 2012 onwards in Audi, Lexus and Toyota vehicles. Although Google has not disclosed any plans of commercialisation yet, as accident-free miles of autonomous-car-driving are piling up, it is to be expected that more than one car manufacturer will want to introduce such driverless technologies on worldwide streets.

In this sense, a first serious attempt has already started in the UK. Indeed, a few days ago it was the turn of UK town Milton Keynes, base of the Formula 1 2013 champion Red Bull Racing team, to announce a further step in the direction of driverless cars introduction. In 2017 there will be around 100 fully-automated electric vehicles – developed in conjunction by the engineering firm Arup and the universities of Cambridge and Oxford – transporting passengers around the town.

Assuming that technology will soon make all of these projects possible, the real question is: will society be able to keep up with such rapid advancements? Considering the potential of computer failures and the unpredictability of driving, will customers be willing to trust a computer to do the job for them, whilst they sit in their car reading emails, tweeting or playing games? And, more importantly, will the legal systems of highly-bureaucratic European states allow in a short period of time the introduction on public streets of vehicles out of direct human control? If car manufactures and research centres really want the mobility future to turn into present, they will have to do more than technological research; they will have to carry governments and customers with them on this fascinating journey.