When the car takes the driver’s seat

When I was a student, an acquaintance of mine drove a black Golf she’s christened Thunder. I always found it bizarre to name a car but recently while reading about the breakthroughs made with autonomous cars (also commonly known as self-driving or driverless cars), I became intrigued by how technological advances have allowed vehicles to behave like real living objects.

Autonomous features and functions in automobiles have been slowly creeping up on us for quite awhile now. Cruise control, self-parking and automatic breaking are commonplace and offer drivers a range of advantages from better fuel efficiency to increased safety. Breakthrough developments in recent years – especially in software, GPS and sensors – have led to a completely self-driving car, with no driver at the wheel to steer, break, blink and turn. In an ideal world, its passengers can relax, hold business meetings, work, etc. while travelling to their destination – with the peace of mind that their car is a first-class driver.

Vehicle and chauffeur in one

A handful of big players have made what once seemed futuristic – maybe even impossible (driverless cars?!) – a reality. In the USA, tech giant Google has clocked in over 1.1 million driverless kilometres for its driverless car project, the Google Self-Driving Car. Until now the company has modified existing vehicles with its specialised software and other equipment. Last spring Google announced that it would soon expand the project to actually build its own autonomous cars.[1]

Testing driverless cars originally focussed on motorways, with their predictable speeds and traffic flow, and straight roadways. But technologies in driverless cars have become refined enough to successfully navigate cities – even San Francisco’s famously windy Lombard Street! It should be said that all prototypes always have a back-up driver to override the system and take control of the car “just in case”.[2]

Generally speaking, Europe has been more prudent than the United States about permitting driverless cars. Come January 2015, the UK will take the lead in Europe with a pilot project that allows them in three (still unknown) trial cities. Maybe some of you are thinking, but what about Leonie? Indeed “Leonie”, a modified VW Passat, took a tour of Braunschweig, Germany back in 2010. Since then Germany has been slow to introduce large-scale project or test phases, especially in comparison to counterparts in the US and UK. But I wouldn’t be surprise if, in true Germany style, they may be perfecting the technology before seeking to make headlines with it.[3]

[1] http://www.drive.com.au/motor-news/look-no-hands-googles-driverless-car-...

[2] http://internationalfleetworld.co.uk/news/2014/Sep/State-of-California-i...

[3] http://www.zeit.de/mobilitaet/2014-08/autonomes-fahren; http://internationalfleetworld.co.uk/news/2014/Sep/Do-we-want-connected-...

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