Remember the old days of driving WITH hands?
WITH his jeans, white trainers and stripy top, Bob is every inch the well-dressed 6-year-old. He’s standing in the middle of a hotel car park and, scarily, I’m driving straight at him. Instead of hitting the brakes, I put my foot down on the accelerator. With just 10 metres to go, a row of red lights flashes across my windscreen and there’s an urgent, high-pitched beeping sound. An instant later, I am jerked forward as the brakes slam on automatically and the car screeches to a halt just short of Bob’s stomach.
This is what Bob is for. The child-sized dummy has just helped me test the first in-car system that can sense an imminent collision with pedestrians and brake automatically if the driver doesn’t. It is being put through final trials before being launched in May by Swedish car maker Volvo in its new S60 model.
The Volvo system is the latest in a line of developments made possible by sophisticated sensors based on cameras, radar and lasers. These sensors already provide drivers with adaptive cruise control, which alters a car’s speed to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front, as well as technology such as semi-autonomous parking systems. Yet according to Jonas Ekmark, a researcher at Volvo near Gothenburg, this is just the start.
Ekmark says we are now entering an era in which vehicles will also gather real-time information about the weather and highway hazards, using this to improve fuel efficiency and make life less stressful for the driver and safer for all road users. “Our long-term goal is the collision-free traffic system,” says Ekmark.
Ultimately, that means bypassing the fallible humans behind the wheel – by building cars that drive themselves. Alan Taub, vice-president for R&D at General Motors, expects to see semi-autonomous vehicles on the highway by 2015. They will need a driver to handle busy city streets or negotiate complex junctions, but once on the highway they will be able to steer, accelerate and avoid collisions unaided. A few years on, he predicts, drivers will be able to take their hands off the wheel completely: “I see the potential for launching fully autonomous vehicles by 2020.”