Drivers take a back seat

By Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin looks at the tech effect on our motoring future

One of Google's prototypes takes itself for a spin.
One of Google's prototypes takes itself for a spin.

If Google has its way the idea of getting behind the wheel of a car could be a redundant notion for many by the end of the decade.

The internet search giant has unveiled the prototypes of what will be a 100-strong fleet of bubble-shaped two-seater cars that come minus steering wheel, brake pedal and accelerator.

You just sit down, belt up and tap your intended destination into a smartphone app. Google's array of sensors, laser radar system and mapping software keep you on the road and out of harm's way. The fleet of Google cars will soon be zipping around Google's California campus, and then further afield.

They mark a turning point in the evolution of the company's five-year-old autonomous car programme and mimic a trend we've seen in everything from web browsers to smartphones, where Google progresses from helping improve other companies' products to beating them at their own game.

Google has racked up millions of incident-free driverless kilometres in places like California and Nevada, perfecting its autonomous vehicle technology on converted Prius and Lexus models.

But Google's ambition has outpaced the ability of the technology to deal with a requisite aspect of the self-driving process - handing back control to the occupant when something goes wrong. "That stuff seems not entirely in keeping with our mission of being transformative," is how Google co-founder Sergey Brin puts it.

Instead, take the controls away from the driver completely. The Google cars are designed to go no faster than 40km/h and come with big spongy bumpers, so Google's foray into truly driverless cars is a safety-conscious one. But Brin and his engineers hope to prove the safety of the cars so that autonomous trips at higher speeds are allowed.

Electric car advocate Doug Clover with Nissan's Leaf.
Electric car advocate Doug Clover with Nissan's Leaf.

If Google's self-driving cars have come to symbolise the next era in automobiles, its car industry rivals are already making incremental steps to getting autonomous driving features into cars today.

The likes of Ford, Audi and BMW have developed a driving technology dubbed traffic jam assist which applies adaptive cruise control and lane-centering to frustrating stop-start traffic conditions. Perfect for those days when Auckland's Northwestern motorway is backed up to the "source of the Nile".

The car companies have used cameras, radar and sonar for blind spots to figure out how to stop cars colliding in reasonably predictable, low-speed conditions. The need for speed is driving the next development that will involve advances in vehicle-to-vehicle communication.

The European Union's SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) Project takes all of the technology that keeps cars in their lane and safely separated and applies software and wireless networking to aid traffic platooning.

Europe has a project to streamline traffic flow with autonomous cars.
Europe has a project to streamline traffic flow with autonomous cars.

It means streams of traffic along European highways could organise themselves into road trains, saving fuel and making driving safer. With all cars networked together, on-board computers can manage traffic flow, however, several regulatory hurdles will have to be overcome before the technology is widely deployed.

Meanwhile, augmented reality dashboards, or heads-up displays, will take some of the hassle out of driving when you need to have your hands on the wheel - and when autonomous driving frees you to surf the mobile web.

Cars will also be transformed under the bonnet. The camshaft has been an integral component of internal combustion engines since day one, but promising new prototypes do away with them in favour of pneumatic valve actuators. The result is increased power and torque while boosting fuel economy from a smaller engine. Turning 150 years of combustion engine history on its head is the goal of an auto industry finally convinced of the merit in removing the engine entirely.

- NZ Herald

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