With all the news of Google being awarded a licence by the state of Nevada for its autonomous car you would be forgiven for thinking they were the only ones doing work in this area. But the passion for driverless vehicles has been around almost since the inception of the motor vehicle itself.
Many of the major car companies already have advanced working prototypes and some of this technology has already been put to use in cars which are on forecourts right now. Take the self parking system which is widely available, this works with the aid of sensors, cameras and servos, all technology derived from the fully autonomous system. Even the common cruise control, or speed control is a close relation giving the driver a feeling of some autonomy.
Mercedes, Volvo and Audi currently have a system in final testing that will take over the driving of a vehicle in a traffic jam or a in a road train situation and can operate at speeds of up to 50 km/h, vehicles fitted with these systems are expected on our roads as early as 2013.
Googles use of its own comprehensive mapping system including Street View, which was co-founded by the driverless car chief engineer Sebastian Thrun, and being the first to receive a license for an autonomous vehicle would seem to put Google ahead of the competition.
Even with these advancements the license does not allow the car to be driven without two people on board, one of these in the driver seat to take control of the vehicle at any time. While most of the questions for the future of driverless cars inevitably include the possibilities of beign able to text, tweet, eat or make phone calls, the emphasis is on safety and if taking the responsibility of driving away from humans will reduce collisions. The World Health Organisation say that 90% of motor vehicle accidents are due to human error so even if autonomous vehicles could reduce that by ten or twenty percent it would be a step in the right direction.
So whether you believe Google has just created some hysteria or not it’s hard to deny it is a step in the right direction. Oh and they’re not the only ones doing it.
By Simon Manley