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How far off is the driverless car?

14 Dec 2012 at 15:22

Automotive technology is moving on at a rapid rate, with more computer systems looking after your safety and monitoring driver inputs to improve efficiency and performance in modern vehicles.

With radar-guided cruise control and autonomous braking programmes already available on many production cars, just how far off is the driverless car?

Well actually, it’s already here and in testing! A recent experiment by leading scientists in autonomous car research pitched a robot car against a human-driven vehicle around a racetrack. The result was a human victory – by a slender margin of just a few seconds.

Given that the human was a race driver and instructor at the track and the car had to ‘learn’ the layout, it was a hollow victory that showed just how far driverless cars have come – and how close they are to potentially being introduced commercially.

According to the Head of the Cars Lab at Stanford University, Professor Chris Gerdes, the basic idea of putting a robot car on a race circuit is applicable to road driving too:

“It’ll help with safety systems. If we can have cars that drive up to the limits and recover if they go past, this is something that could help ordinary drivers – for instance on a slippery road.

“We can learn from what the best racing drivers do and write algorithms to teach the car to do the same, pre-empting the average drivers’ inputs to keep the car and its occupants safe.”

However, while the technology might be nearing completion, don’t expect to see vehicles zipping around without anybody ‘at the wheel’ any time soon.

A survey by the Institute of Advanced Motorists showed that one in two people don’t think the driverless car will become very popular, while 56% of drivers don’t think it’ll become the norm within 10 years.

Nearly a quarter (22%) said they’d never use one, while 9% of people believe driverless car technology is actually irresponsible.

Still, over half believe automated systems should take control to prevent a crash, while a strong showing of 92% believe it’d help safety, with the car behind not allowed to get too close.

So, a mixed set of results on perceptions of the driverless car. Although the technology is in testing and not all that far away – Volvo even has a working road train of vehicles that can navigate a motorway without input from drivers – it seems the majority of motorists don’t think it’ll be here in the next decade.

Market demand drives what we want our cars to be – if the desire isn’t there, the driverless car is probably still a very long way off.