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Autonomous driving – held back by legal constraints rather than lack of technological know-how

AID Newsletter Editorial 1410 from Peter Schmidt - June 04th 2014

Google car image AID graphic

Open quote signSome of us, but certainly not all of us, on certain occasions, would no doubt benefit from the use of a driverless car. 

But how soon can we look, experience and buy one from our local dealer? 

If Google has its way, the first of its driverless cars, might go on sale as soon as next year. 

If indeed it turns out that way, chances are that we are presented with a 2-seater towncar that can go from A to B totally on its own without any physical assistance from its passengers. 

Like Tata’s Nano, when first unveiled to the world’s media as the cheapest car money can buy, Google’s decision to unveil the first prototype vehicles of its driverless cars has received huge media coverage. 

As clear as day, the technology employed is immense, and Google thinkers ought to be congratulated on their sterling effort. 

But that doesn’t mean that carmakers were left way behind in the dust twiddling their thumbs. 

Instead, car and major component suppliers have worked tirelessly on that and similar technology for years. 

But these high-tech efforts were generally undertaken behind the closed doors of the carmakers’ understandably secretive R&D departments. 

The motive and opportunity to develop cars capable of driving themselves, is essentially little more than a mere bye-product of technology already employed in some of today’s volume produced cars. 

In short, by the time automatic steering effort for self-parking cars was developed, hand-in-glove with automatic throttle and brake activation, it was only a question of time before the dream of a driverless car could be put into reality. 

Broad brush, perhaps, but add to that tools of the trade like parking sensors, front and rear on-board cameras, radar for automatic distance control, to mention just a few, and what you’ve got are most key ingredients needed for a driverless car.

Finally, satellite navigation, plus automatic car-to-car or two-way transmitter to car communication, and bingo. 

Such cars, equipped with massive computer power and state-of-the-art software, will be able to take you from A to B totally on their own. 

Yes, unlike the Google car, they still have a steering wheel and pedals, but apart from that, these experimental rolling laboratory cars will be able to do just what the Google car does. 

Driverless car technology is totally familiar territory for, among others, Europe’s prestige sector leaders. 

Be that BMW, Audi or Mercedes, they all operate driverless experimental vehicles.

Stage one, in terms of market availability is already with us. 

A case in point is Mercedes’ Stop-Go Assist, first seen in its new S-Class. 

It acts as a driverless car in slow-moving traffic; that’s up to 60km/h. 

For legal reasons, pure ‘hands off’ driving is not permitted. 

The way and ahead biggest hurdles to be crossed in the future are not so much technological ones, but day to day safety and legislative ones. 

In short, what happens if a child suddenly runs in front of the car. 

More development is needed to fine-tune sensors and reaction time for just such an event.

Genuine autonomous driving in today’s world traffic, be it the much talked-about Google car or a Mercedes S-Class, next generation Audi A8 or BMW 7-Series, will not be with us for some time. 

The main reasons? 

They all need to comply with today’s existing safety legislation. 

In a sense, technology has already rocketed miles ahead of legislation, and catch-up will take ages

And it is essentially for these ‘what if’ safety and legislative constraints, that pure autonomous driving, while technologically feasible in less than a handful of years in a volume produced car, will not be seen in normal road-going cars any time soon.

The inevitable move towards full autonomous driving, I believe, will be kicked off as usual with the optional availability in most pricey top-of-the-tree models. 

Thereafter, it will move downwards into lower sectors. 

Starting with ACC-driven Stop-Go assistance for use in slow-moving traffic, the inevitable move towards full autonomous driving will be a comparatively slow, and above all safe, step-by-step approach, 

A move likely followed by the industry as a whole rather than lead by a solo-move from a volume-built Google-car.
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