Driverless Cars Are Closer Than You Think

11/04/2016

Driverless Cars Are Closer Than You Think

Self-driving cars may seem years away, but more than 1.5 million UK motorists a year now leave showrooms in new cars featuring self-activating safety systems which will be at the heart of such developments.

That’s according to analysis from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), which represents businesses of all sizes focused on the UK’s automotive sector.

It’s on a mission to persuade us of the major benefits all the technology involved will bring us, in the name of helping ensure that the UK stays at the forefront of such developments, and can benefit fully from the work it will bring to suppliers and manufacturers.

Semi-autonomous vehicle technology not only eases the task of driving, but importantly, has the potential to reduce significantly the risk of serious accidents, claims the SMMT and its other main proponents. And it is appearing on increasing numbers of cars being sold today.

 

Robots A Long Way Off Taking Full Control

“Fully driverless cars are still a long way off from everyday use,” says Mike Hawes, chief executive of the SMMT, “but advanced autonomous technology is already making its way into the majority of new cars.”

While he is clear that there will be potential benefits in terms of a sharp growth in the number of people working on the technology and fitting them into the cars made in the UK, Mr Hawes said the wider benefits of driverless technology, by way of reduced emissions and congestion, and improved safety, could bring benefits worth as much as £40 billion to the to the UK economy as a whole - from which, he implied, everyone would benefit.

In the UK in particular, the SMMT has forecast that by 2030 the development, production and use of a range of systems allied to driverless vehicles could provide up to 320,000 new jobs and give an annual boost to the economy of £51billion - and that’s before fully driverless operation is a common occurrence.

He is also keen to stress how autonomous vehicles would allow people using them to become more productive, through we’re less than five years away from the first driverless cars appearing on our roads, and as we wrote last October, Volvo is among the leading car-makers which have trial programmes of autonomous vehicles at an advanced stage.

 

But Are People Ready To See An Empty Driver’s Seat?

The doubts about what might go wrong still make regular headlines, with even influential, specialist publications reporting scary findings, including that as many as seven out of 10 British drivers are apprehensive about the prospect of sharing the roads with cars being driven remotely.

And of course, every crash of a Google self-driving car gives ammunition to those who are nervous about the prospect of sharing the roads with vehicles which aren’t being steered by human effort.

However, the SMMT doesn’t think we should be so worried, especially as most of the new cars now being driven away from our showrooms feature one, if not several, pieces of semi-autonomous control technology.

It reckons that one and a half million cars which took to the UK’s roads in 2015 - just over half of all new vehicles sold - had some form of this wizardry incorporated, primarily some form of collision warning system.

 

How Many Of These Features Are In Your Car Already?

A range of safety features, such as lane departure warning systems, adaptive cruise control and autonomous emergency braking are all common in the spec lists of more upmarket cars. For example, you can find all of these features on the latest Jaguar XE and XF models, and with motoring safety organisation Euro NCAP claiming such devices can cut the risk of a rear-end collision by more than a third, and such technology from the list of optional extras offered by their manufacturer more than doubled that proportion, to 39%.

To add further perspective to this, five years ago this technology featured in less than seven per cent - one in 14 - of all new cars.

Only a slightly smaller figure than for collision warning systems - 31% - hit the roads in 2015 with some form of adaptive cruise control, whose features include the ability to adjust the speed of the car if it senses that it is too close to the one in front. This would have been found in fewer than one in 10 new cars five years earlier.

SMMT chief executive, Mike Hawes, knows however, that a lot of work still needs to be done on ensuring that all these independent systems can effectively communicate with and work alongside each other before we enter a brave new world where we can all let the car take care of all the effort involved in getting us safely from A to B, at the same time allowing us to do other tasks while on the move.

It’s difficult to argue against the merits of having your car locate the nearest convenient parking space to where you need to go, then once you’ve driven there, being able to steer itself safely into it.

The most difficult factor to build into any piece of safety technology, however, can be broadly summed up by the ‘GIGO’ (garbage in, garbage out) principle. That is, that the system and all the controls which work it will, at some point be reliant on human input. And no computer, however clever, can discern when it has been fed some faulty information, which might cause it to react in an unexpected - and possibly dangerous - way.

So perhaps in summary, we’re better off sticking with the technology we have at present, and having the added backup of our own survival instincts to help keep us safe on the roads. At least then, when things do go wrong, we’ll still know who to blame…