February 5, 2013

The End of Driving As We Know It?

Since 1859, when Belgian J.J. Etienne Lenoir first drove the first motorised automobile, driving has become a staple part of modern civilisation. As much a part of our everyday life as walking or talking, operating a car is an activity that many take for granted, now as mundane a task as answering a phone call or watching television.

However, all that could be about to change.

Google are in the midst of a revolutionary project that could see the end of driving as we know it; the driverless car.

The technology is being pioneered by one of the brains behind the infinitely successful Google Street View, Sebastian Thrun, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that this is some Science-Fiction laboratory experiment unlikely to ever see the bright light of day; the Autonomous Car is in the early stages of production already, and the ball is already rolling rapidly towards making the driverless car a commonplace luxury.

In June 2011, the US State of Nevada passed a law allowing the operation of driverless cars within its jurisdiction. This law came into effect last March, and by May the first license for a driverless car had been issued. Since then both Florida and California have followed suit, permitting driverless cars within the state.

However Google are not the only trailblazers in the field of Autonomous cars; Audi has also been testing their own similar project on Nevada highways, and they have even refined the work started by Google, as whilst Google’s technology consisted of bulky computer equipment affixed to the roof of the vehicle, Audi has managed to minimise this to a much smaller mechanism that, at roughly the size of a human fist, can fit easily into the grill of a car, and therefore allows the capacity to retroactively update older models of cars to become driverless. Continental are also well into the way of developing their own version of the technology.

With a variety of companies challenging each other to be the first to release the driverless car, as well as a certainty of other competitors to appear in the not-too-distant future, it may seem that we will be seeing autonomous vehicles before our tax is up on our current pride-and-joys. However I wouldn’t expect to be getting in a quick nap on the driver’s seat on the way to work any time soon; Continental suggests that whilst the project is progressing well, it is likely to be 2025 before your road trip is provided by auto pilot.

It is expected that Japan will be the most likely location to first see the driverless car on its roads in any case, probably many years before the UK or US, and instead of a sudden revolution of vehicles rendering drivers redundant, it is much more likely that aspects of the technology necessary to make the driverless car possible will trickle down into the mainstream gradually throughout the next couple of decades. We already have access to adaptive cruise control, parking aids, lane-departure warnings, electronic stability control and predictive emergency braking. As Continental CEO Elmar Degenhart says; “We are convinced that automated driving has already begun.”

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