So we’ve all read about driverless or self-driving cars and the technological advances that are enabling various tests in this field, especially in the US from the likes of Google. We’ve looked at these in previous Tiger blogs.
But when will we start seeing this technology in standard production cars? 2020? 2025? How about 2013?
Mercedes have revealed that their new S-class model, which goes on sale early next year, is capable of driving itself in towns and on motorways at speeds of up to 124mph. The new car features a “Distronic Plus” steering assistance system that uses a 360-degree sensor comprising six individual radar systems, a stereoscopic camera, twelve ultrasonic sensors and four additional cameras. It all adds up to a car that can steer and brake itself by reading road signs, following white lines on roads or tracking the car in front as well as monitoring the road ahead for pedestrians and animals. BMW, Ford and Vauxhall are thought to have similar systems under development, whilst Google has claimed 300,000 crashless miles in US driverless car tests.
So is this the world’s first autonomous driving car?
Well it could have been but current legislation doesn’t permit it! Europe’s driving laws and highway codes all stem from the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic in 1968 and this requires that drivers must be in control of their vehicle at all times. To give you an idea of the technological context for the Vienna Convention, it makes reference to horses, saddles and carts! So no surprise perhaps that it failed to legislate for what at the time would have seemed like nothing more than science fiction.
The result is that Mercedes have built a mechanism into the S-class that essentially “dumbs down” the self-driving potential of the car. Sensors have been fitted to the steering wheel to ensure that the driver keeps their hands on the wheel at all times, with alerts sounding and automated support systems shutting down if the torque on the steering wheel dips below thresholds.
So until the UK’s and Europe’s legislators amend the Vienna Convention – and this is under debate – driverless cars will remain more fantasy than fiction. Underpinning the legal debate will be many issues including that of blame in the event of accidents. Who is to blame if a driver is legally reading a book or having a nap and the self-driving car has an accident? Car insurance companies are naturally wary of this, as are motor manufacturers themselves. US state law in Nevada, where driverless car technology is permitted, keeps the blame squarely with the driver.
Watch this space!