No driver, no problem: how road travel will change

by Kit Buchan

The Observer

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Innovation in motoring has always involved the gradual removal of human agency from the general business of operating a car. The hand crank, the choke and the double-dip clutch are thankfully behind us, and new cars can not only turn the wheels and pump the brakes when necessary, but read the map, change gears, maintain speed and ease you into a parking space.

The driver — that most unreliable piece of machinery — will soon become all but redundant as steering, navigating and keeping an eye out for danger are handed over to the vehicle.

Google has taken the lead in pursuit of this goal, sending its stable of autonomous cars all over the east coast of the United States, each sporting a spinning range-finder on the roof, which amasses information from 64 laser beams and compares it to Google’s street map data to determine precise location.

A number of car firms, some of which have been developing driverless technology for years, have been whipping the dustsheets off their semi-autonomous prototypes this year. Audi, for example, has upgraded its cruise control function to respond to radar scanners and adjust speed and steering, while Toyota has let loose the “Advanced Safety Research Vehicle” — a Lexus with cameras and ranging lasers clamped to its roof and bonnet like inelegant parasites. A web of various technological strands is necessary to provide a vehicle with the wherewithal to drive itself, particularly on urban roads and in dense traffic.

In the most advanced systems, lasers and radar will compare their surroundings and adjust their data with GPS tracking, while onboard cameras will read the road, feeding information to a complex system of robotics inside the vehicle. Furthermore, autonomous technology could be coupled with developments in car-to-car communication, allowing cars to trade information as they cross paths and learn about road conditions, hazards and traffic from one another.

Power

Electric cars, for all the investment poured into their improvement, remain shackled by their own batteries: heavy, perishable and largely incapable of providing a vehicle with adequate range to rival their petrol predecessors. In the motor industry, however, frustration is the mother of invention, and other power sources are being developed with ever-increasing imagination and ever-improving results.

One of the most ambitious fuel projects was announced by Audi at the Geneva Motor Show this month — a new dual-engine A3 model that runs on natural gas. Natural gas is lower than petrol both in weight and emissions. If you balk at exchanging one fossil fuel for another, however, then you’ll be pleased to hear that Audi is simulating its own gas at a dedicated plant in Germany, reacting hydrogen and carbon dioxide to make synthetic methane, which it has delicately labelled with the euphemism “e-gas.”

At the same show, Volkswagen displayed the production-ready XL1, which was described by Autocar magazine as “probably the most economical and most aerodynamically efficient production car of all time.” The sleek two-seater hybrid represents years of tireless perfectionism by its creators, who have managed to hammer down emissions and prune off weight to end up with a ground-breaking, futuristic lozenge of a car, capable of very long journeys on very little fuel.

Various alternative fuel vehicles lie just beyond the public reach, most tantalizingly hydrogen-powered cars, which have been rolled out many times in prototype but never in outright production. These run on an electric engine powered by hydrogen fuel cells, which are potentially very efficient but have yet to be manipulated to maximum effect.

Other advances will help to improve efficiency. Jim Kor is 3-D printing his own three-wheeler, saving hundreds of kilos of weight, while a U.S. power company is developing a two-piston, single cylinder engine that will burn multiple fuels and hugely reduce wasted energy.

Safety

The primary goal of driverless driving is to rule out road accidents caused by human error — nine out of 10 — and thereby save humanity from one of its biggest killers.

The theory is simple and convincing: Let the car carry the burden of vigilant, responsible driving and its superior attention span, reaction time and eyesight will protect you better than you could ever protect yourself. It will even protect others around you, slowing or stopping to avoid bikes, pedestrians and any other unpredictable flotsam.

There is a small, luddite part of every seasoned driver, however, that will find the first experience of a robotic car to be uncanny or even vaguely sinister, calling to mind scenes from Stephen King’s late-80s screamer Maximum Overdrive, and this instinct may not be entirely unjustified.

Will Knight of the MIT Technology Review has voiced his fears about autonomous vehicles malfunctioning and running amok, while Peter Borrows has pointed out, in New Scientist magazine, that an autonomous car is no less hackable than any other computerized device.

Also, the more we come to rely on automated transport, the less adept we will become at driving, so drivers may find themselves at greater risk when they override the autopilot.

Thankfully, car companies have not abandoned their practical safety targets quite yet, with Volvo typically leading the field with its introduction of pedestrian airbags, among other new measures carried out in pursuit of its alarmingly ambitious 2008 promise: “By 2020, nobody shall be seriously injured or killed in a new Volvo.”

If all manufacturers made similar pledges, the future of motoring would be unrecognizably bright