Self-driving cars are nearing reality

General Motors reckons its EN-V city concept can drop off passengers before finding a charging station by itself. Photo / Supplied
General Motors reckons its EN-V city concept can drop off passengers before finding a charging station by itself. Photo / Supplied

Cars that go on autopilot with the driver comfortably taking a nap have long been seen in science fiction movies, but are today a technical reality with vehicles finding their own way with the help of radar, lasers and cameras scanning the road ahead.

If Nico Kaempchen, a project leader at BMW in Munich, has his way, all cars could some day in the future go on autopilot. At the moment, however, the car manufacturer is only going as far as optimising assistance systems to support the driver in certain situations.

"Introducing this type of technology in serial production cars where cars find their own way to a destination is still a long way off," he concedes.

Already a reality in many cars is park-assist in which the vehicle manoeuvres its way into an empty parking space by itself after the driver has pressed a button. All the driver needs to do is to operate the accelerator and brake.

Park-assist is an option in some cars, and a worthy investment, according to Hans-Georg Marmit from the German technical testing authority Kues.

"Just a small bump can be very costly both in repairs on your car and the one which has been damaged during a parking procedure," he says.

Researchers at BMW and VW are already one step further along with systems that can park the car without the driver inside the vehicle. Such a system can be especially useful in narrow parking spaces where it would be difficult for the driver to get out of the vehicle.

If the driver wishes to drive off again, all he needs to do is to press the remote control. The car engine then starts by itself and moves out of the parking lot.

Both VW and BMW are however hesitant to reveal a date when they would be ready to offer such a system to the mass market. Customers too are reluctant to spend a lot of money on a system where they would no longer be in control of the car.

According to a recent poll conducted by Autoscout24 in Germany, some 24 per cent of the respondents said they enjoyed driving while another 27 per cent were sceptical about the technology.

Another third of the respondents said they wanted to choose whether to use the system dependent on the traffic situation. Only 17 per cent of the respondents voted for the autopilot.

"For most people an autopilot in the car is still from science fiction and it should offer real advantages before it is introduced," says Thomas Weiss, who conducted the survey for Autoscout24.

But car researchers are moving ahead. Christopher Borroni-Bird, head of research at General Motors, explains that the car manufacturer's EN-V electric city vehicle need only drop its occupants in front of a restaurant while it continues its journey to the charging station in the underground car park.


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