Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 August 2020

Are you ready for autonomous vehicles?

With various companies testing out their versions, it is only a matter of time before they are made available in the market.
A prototype of a self-driving car by Google. Courtesy Google Detroit / Reuters
A prototype of a self-driving car by Google. Courtesy Google Detroit / Reuters

The self-driving car. What, if anything, in recent memory, has caused so much gnashing of teeth among petrolheads, so much furious tapping away at keyboards? Those who enjoy the rush of a perfectly judged apex and the joy of a lively throttle fear that autonomous vehicles will turn driving into a mere method of getting from A to B, rather than something to savour.

I can understand their fears. I love driving too, and don’t want to give it up. But at the same time, I’m all in favour of the driver-free car, albeit with a few caveats.

The self-driving vehicle has been around in concept for a long, long time, almost since the dawn of the car itself. The notion first sprang up in the 1920s and futurists have postulated variations of the idea since. In 1939, General Motors sponsored an exhibit at the New York World’s Fair that saw a model of electric cars moving unpiloted along embedded circuits in the road and controlled by radio, and research continued along that vein for the next 40 years.

But it wasn’t until the 1980s that a breakthrough occurred, when a Mercedes-Benz van, developed at the University of Munich, travelled unaided at 63kph on traffic-free streets. That prompted an eight-year study in Europe that coincided with a similar breakthrough in the US, in a study funded by the Department of Defense.

Since then, the groundswell of backing for autonomous vehicles has grown continuously. Today, many of the major car manufacturers have their own projects, while Google and other technology companies have developed vehicles to house their own technology. In Abu Dhabi, Masdar City uses electric-powered driverless Personal Rapid Transport pods to move people around Masdar Institute.

In a simplified way, it’s only legislation that stops autonomous vehicles hitting the road right now. Governments around the world are worried about letting high-speed lumps of metal loose on public roads without someone to control them, so myriad tests are being conducted in controlled circumstances to ensure that the computers won’t be mowing down pedestrians.

As a long-term car nut, and someone who drives a great deal, I look forward to self-driving cars fitting into our world. I want a range of cars on sale, much like today, that have been engineered for comfort, ride, handling and feel, but that let the driver click onto auto whenever he or she wants.Think about it; how much of your driving do you really enjoy? Being stuck in traffic? An hour of imbeciles tailgating, undertaking and generally harassing you on the commute? Maybe you do. But I live for the open roads, the twists and turns, the exhilaration. Not the frustration that is 90 per cent of the motoring experience.

For vast amounts of my time in a car, I want to be able to press a button and let the car take over while I relax. It’s a logical extension of technologies that modern cars already feature. Adaptive cruise control. GPS navigation. Lane-keep assist. All these go unused when I’m on the mountain switchbacks, but on the freeway they’re a big help. Why not combine them all together? The latest Mercedes-Benz S-Class already does that, in certain markets – at lower speeds, it’ll keep a constant distance behind the car in front and steer itself between lane markings without the driver needing to do a thing. The Rolls-Royce Wraith uses GPS to know what route it’s on, and selects the appropriate gear for the next approaching corner.

I foresee driving for fun – the full-fat engagement experience – becoming something to be savoured, like a fine cigar. Let those who merely want transport have their autonomous white goods; if they never want to pilot themselves, fine. In many cases, computers will do a better job than the masses anyway. But let’s use that technology as well, when it suits us. As long as we still have the option of taking control when we want to, and the automotive industry doesn’t forget about the enthusiasts, I’m happy to let the future whisk me through those dreary journeys while I await the next opportunity for enjoyment.

Updated: August 28, 2014 04:00 AM

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