When, thanks to an open-minded approach to traffic laws, ‘driverless’ cars first turn a wheel on to the UK’s public roads next January will they be, erm, ‘driverless’?
In the fullest understanding of the word, no. While Google has in development a vehicle that has no steering or control pedals, the cars that perform in tests here in 2015 will be ‘regular’ cars – having steering, pedals, gear shift – also fitted with extra kit to enable them to drive independently in traffic.
But in every case the driver can and will be capable of taking back control in a moment, if need be. Cars have for years gained safety devices to help and even take over from the driver if a collision becomes imminent.
Lane ‘departure’ warning systems, intelligent cruise control and extra braking force devices not form part of the specification for high-end saloons – and are beginning to be offered on mainstream vehicles, too.
Mercedes-Benz has for some years offered a system that senses whenever the driver is tired and warns accordingly, while Volvo’s city safety system prevents low-speed accidents caused by driver inattention: it senses when a crash may be about to happen and the car brakes itself to a stop.
With such systems, we’re halfway there: there isn’t such a leap to be made in technological know-how to reach full take-over of driver controls. Realistically, vehicles that can safely convey occupants who can’t even drive over lengthy journeys, all the while making the hundreds of decisions demanded of a human driver, are decades away yet.
And the technology involved can only improve if it is trialled in real traffic conditions. I welcome the UK govt’s foresight in allowing this.
Nearer at hand, the future promises to preserve all the pleasures so many of us derive from piloting a car correctly and well. But it will also be on hand to assist or even take over on journeys that would otherwise be tedious: long runs of motorway miles, or time spent shuffling gears and brakes in stop-start town traffic.
I love driving. However, the day when, after a tiring work session, I can just climb into my car, thumb the button marked ‘home’ and let the technology take the strain is one that can’t come too soon.
Article by Ray Castle