The Driverless Car – a Revolution in Mobile Technology

Driverless Car

Undeniably, the steering wheel, just any steering wheel, enjoys a certain power of attraction. That is why designers, especially for cars, have tried to work on its appeal. Steering wheels often come in a costly outfit, which may be a soft leather cover that, at the driver’s touch, willingly transmits the message to the performing wheels underneath. And beginners and old stagers alike indulge the feeling of absolute freedom when manoeuvring their vehicle just by turning the wheel. To be in total control of the car’s technology and exert one’s driving skills used to be at the heart of personal mobility. So whatever made someone come up with the idea of separating the driver from his beloved steering wheel?

Self-driving cars on the road

It’s a fact that worldwide, researchers in artificial intelligence labs, car companies like General Motors, Ford and Volvo, for example, and Military Research Programmes like Darpa, are working on reliable autopilots. They have already developed “driver support systems” like adaptive cruise controls, self-parking options and automated-braking systems, which could mean only a short hop to fully-fledged robotic cars. In Silicon Valley it is the new lab of Google X where one of the “most innovative” scientists, Sebastian Thrun, born in Solingen, Germany, developed Street View and self-driving robotic cars. Since May this year robotic cars have been allowed on Nevada’s roads with Google’s modified Toyota Prius [1] forming the benchmark. And in California a motion has been proposed to allow robotic cars on the road. According to Gartner, a market-research firm, “self-driving vehicles will be on sale within eight years.”[2] So what’s the benefit? Driverless cars are said to “reduce road accidents, ease traffic congestion and revolutionize transport”. [2] As 90% of accidents are caused by “human error”, self-driving cars are hoped to be real lifesavers, after seatbelts and airbags have improved road safety since the 1970s. So robotic cars have to be more reliable and ‘infallible’ than human drivers will ever be. With an increase of vehicles on the world’s roads up to 2 billion in the near future road safety is back on the list of most urgent issues.[2] Of course, this will also change the design of cars. Today they still look like big spiders with their laser scanners and lots of cameras and antennae on top. It is a creepy experience if you “get a lift” by a trial car and you just see a laptop on the driver’s seat driving the car. Its sensor system connects and saves innumerable data as to roadmaps, traffic lights, road curbs, bridges and construction sites, detours etc. on an exact 3-D-map. No doubt, they are the most intelligent cars on the road.[3] But there are still some serious problem areas in which these smart vehicles continue to fail like driving at night and in heavy rain, unforeseen obstacles on the road, in short: anything outside the ordinary traffic system. And who will be able to afford a car like this?

Will drivers resist temptations?

However, do humans really want to compete with robots and let go of the steering wheel? Especially since scientists are boasting of more enticing visions apart from road safety: you could just get off the car whenever you need to and it would look for parking space all by itself. Good news also for the elderly who could drive up to a very old age. Of course, also new sensible concepts of car sharing could be developed. And the most promising aspect for most drivers may be that stress from driving will be a thing of the past. Working while being driven to work or elsewhere will definitely change traditional ways of commuting and, after all, of working. Therefore, robotic cars on the road could provide a lot of advantages and a new quality of getting around, especially for business mobility. And in ten years’ time we will see whether people are willing to give up their autonomy on the road and outsource their independent driving skills just as many are doing now with memory and social skills. Will the thrill of driving a car be lost or just become a different experience?

[3] Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Uwe Ebbinghaus, Verändert er die Welt? 16. August 2012, S. 25

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