Avid Tiger.co.uk blog readers will have noted our interest in the various autonomous car developments taking place around the world. Lead by the folks at Google and some of the biggest car makers - Ford, BMW, Audi, Nissan, Volvo - efforts are being made to refine the technology needed to create a safe and affordable self-driving car.
Last week saw an announcement by the Department of Transport that driverless cars will be allowed to be tested on public roads in the UK before the end of 2013. To date trials in the UK, lead by a team of Oxford University researchers, have taken place on private roads around the Oxford Science Park.
The key drivers - pardon the pun! - behind these developments are the drive for greater road safety and the economic savings that will accompany this. Over 1.2 million people die each year in traffic accidents and many more are injured. Using various combinations of cameras, lasers, radars, and GPS technology, pulled together by computers, self-driving cars, as a Google spokesperson points out, "never get sleepy or distracted and their ability to make driving decisions 20 times per second helps them run smartly".
Interestingly, the planned UK driverless car tests echo those of 50 years ago, when it was planned to test a specially adapted Citroen DS car on a 9 mile stretch of the M4, which was specially adapted for the purpose. Although this test never made it to the roads, other developments since 1960 have paved the way for the development of these potentially life-changing technologies. In 1969 the French developed their Aramis test project, running a "train" of cars on magnetic rails. In 1995 a Mercedes van essentially drove itself the 1,000 miles from Munich to Copenhagen.
And car manufacturers have been pioneering individual components of self-driving cars that are operational today: VW has an autonomous braking system and a system that can "see" speed limit signs; Ford has developed the ability for cars to self-parallel park; and the new Mercedes S-Class limo has assisted steering, braking and acceleration thanks to an array of radar and camera sensors.
These technologies will become commonplace - remember that safety features such as airbags and ABS were originally piloted on "top end" car models but soon became standard, almost universal features.
The impending UK road tests will of course be carefully managed and scrutinised. A back-up driver will be present in all vehicles at all times; test cars will be driven in "semi-autonomous" mode; and the roads used will be less-heavily used rural and suburban roads rather than motorways and busier city centre routes.
We do not yet have a date for the UK road tests to start but, as ever, Tiger.co.uk will monitor developments and keep our blog readers up to speed.