There have been autopilot mechanisms of increasing complexity fitted to aircraft since The Sperry Corporation developed one in 1912 and recently, spurred by desire to reduce the number of deaths and injuries, and encouraged by rising hopes of viability, many are now convinced that such devices can be utilized in the automotive world.
It seems on the face of it that many of the basic technical problems have been solved, if pronouncements from figures at major motor manufacturers are to be believed. Over at Ford, Bill Ford Jr. has conjured a vision of autopilot cars, known more generically as autonomous vehicles, cruising the highways of the world, navigating by a combination of GPS and on-board sensors, delivering their passengers securely from departure to arrival. According to Mr. Ford, the main advantages are improvements in traffic flow as well as an expected reduction in accident frequency. He cites driver convenience as an added boon.
Naturally, Ford is not the only company interested in these developments. Technicians at Oxford University have developed a vehicle called Wildcat which has cameras, sensor suites and on-board 3D maps. The declared advantage is that traffic slowdowns and tail-backs could be avoided. Google have already shown off cars which require no driver at all. BMW are taking an interest as well but their vision seems to be one involving a high degree of automation but with the human driver still in overall control and the automation taking over when traveling on highways fully mapped for the purposes of their control system.
Volkswagen is getting in on the act as well. Dr. Jürgen Leohold, head of their Group Research has introduced the TAP (Temporary Auto Pilot) system, which is capable of driving a car up to 80 mph. It relies on cameras and ultrasonic-based sensors, combined with a laser scanner and electronic horizon and incorporates Cruise Control and Lane Assist functions. Dr. Leohold sees this system as a step towards fully automatic and accident-free driving.
Even those for whom cars are nothing more than A to B machines and would be more than happy to hand over control to the box behind the firewall might wonder whether any system is up to the job of piloting a ton and a half of metal, and the precious cargo of their own soft tissues, along the motorways and pot-holed suburban streets of our transportation-mad world. Well, developments so far seem to indicate that, while no doubt pretty fiendishly complex, the actual on-board technology is well on the way to being built and configured. But of course that is only one part of the picture.
It is clear that these systems are already being shaken down in the real world because equipped vehicles are being tested, among normal traffic, in a number of places. Clearly, legal issues about who or what is in charge of the vehicle and what would be the process in the event of an accident, have begun to be addressed. Google have been working with legislators in Nevada to allow a fleet of automated vehicles to operate on the state’s roads. Encouraging to some, but a Pandora ’s Box of potential litigation to thousands more. And dealing with accidents is only part of the story. Since the world cannot be made anew at a stroke, automated, semi-automated, and good old hand-eye coordinated, mobile-at-the-ear manually-driven cars would have to share the tarmac for decades.
There are some who say that considering the number of miles driven and the capacity for day-dreaming and other distraction of the average human, the number of accidents is actually remarkably small. And perhaps a lot smaller than would result from the pile-ups that would follow a sudden loss of GPS in the neighborhood of your local motorway on a wet November evening. Hand-to-hand combat with the M25 for me, please.