One of the reasons I believe that fully autnomous cars are inevitable is that they’re not a technology that has to be delivered all in one go to be useful. Any piece of technology that automates some aspect of driving to make it easier and safer gets us another step towards a self-driving car. So, even if fully autonomous vehicles are some way off widespread deployment, there are some pretty impressive incremental steps towards them appearing on vehicles right now.
For instance, Volkswagen is just about to release a tiny, cheap city car, the Up! (yes, the official name includes the exclamation mark), on to the Australian market. And, stock standard, this $14,000 vehicle includes a feature, in Volkswagen marketing-speak, City Emergency Braking.
This system uses a laser-based sensor (LIDAR in a nutshell, to detect approaching obstacles while driving at low speeds (under 30 km/h) and stop the vehicle to avoid them:
This isn’t the first Autonomous Emergency Brake system – a number of European luxury vehicles are already fitted with them, as well as adaptive cruise control systems that keep your vehicle at a constant distance from the vehicle in front of you in traffic. Nor is it the most sophisticated. As this video explains, more complex models with longer-range sensors can do the same trick at freeway speeds. But it is notable how quickly this technology has migrated from Mercedes-Benzes and Lexuses to the most humble model in the Volkswagen range.
Within a few years, virtually every single vehicle sold is likely to have these systems, to join the lane-keeping and auto-parking systems that are also becoming more and more common. If the claims that it will reduce car accidents by 27% are accurate, it won’t be long before they’re compulsory.
And Bosch and the other automotive electronics houses are undoubtedly busily working on taking some other aspect of driving out of human hands right now.
And, a few generation down the track, sober regulators will wonder why we need human drivers overseeing the computers when they oversight is less reliable than the computers.