The Future Of Self-Driving Cars Is Here!

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Anyone who enjoys driving should brace themselves for what may not be an entirely welcome change on the horizon. A brave new world is coming, and rather sooner than many of us expected. The age of the self-driving car is almost here, and not as some hazy sci-fi notion, but as real cars on the road.

It is very tempting to regard this looming development with suspicion and distrust; even outright dislike. Self-driving cars, driverless cars, autonomous cars – call them what you will – are going to become part of the traffic. Not immediately, but soon. And eventually they are going to fundamentally change the relationship we have with our vehicles.

Competition In The Autonomous Car Market

It was easy to snigger at the rather strange looking, peculiarly upright little Google autonomous car that recently made headlines around the world, when it was showcased in California. It looked like a bit of a joke car, and it all seemed rather a long way off, both time-wise and geographically.

But it is also well-known that car manufacturers have long been beavering away at similar technology. Then came the news that Volvo has a well-advanced scheme to put 100 driverless cars out into the traffic of Gothenburg – where the Swedish manufacturer is based – just over two years from now, in 2017.

Too Good To Be True?

An instinctive reaction would be: surely not? It still seems so wildly futuristic, like something out of science fiction. The prospect of driverless cars has been talked about for as long as I have been a motoring writer, which is a fair old time, and has always been vaguely anticipated for some time way in the future. Only now, suddenly, it’s happening.

Even so, when I received an invitation from Volvo to go to the company headquarters in Gothenburg and experience a self-driving car in action, I assumed we would be heading for the test track, where so much of the development work is done. Surely such a vehicle wouldn’t be ready to take a trip in on the road yet? But it is.

On a day that will be forever etched in memory as a motoring milestone, I settled into the passenger seat of a Volvo V40 with Jonas, a Volvo electronics engineer and autonomous driving specialist, in the ‘driving’ seat. For now, it’s a legal requirement that company personnel must be behind the wheel, even when the car is self-driving.

With Jonas actually doing the driving to begin with, we threaded out through busy Gothenburg traffic and onto a main dual carriageway. Then, with the car set in cruise mode, he pressed a switch on the dash, took his feet off the pedals, moved his hands away from the steering wheel, and hey presto: the car was in charge.

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So, Is This The Way Forward For Driving?

It felt weird and rather unsettling to be in a car with no human involvement in its progress, at 50 mph along a dual carriageway, and amongst other traffic. As this was a prototype being operated by a big box of electronic wizardry installed in the boot, Jonas sat alert and ready to intervene should the need arise. But it didn’t, and we ‘drove’ for miles with the car doing all the work, while we sat relaxed and chatting. It seemed unnatural, but it was really happening.

Development Of Autonomous Cars

Come 2017, cars like this – with the relevant electronics integrated into the regular system – will be in daily use, as lease cars in the first autonomous car project of its type. The users will be local drivers working for agencies and businesses, and cooperating with Volvo in the project. It’s a remarkable prospect.

Not such a surprising one, maybe, when you think about the rapid development of driver assistance systems over recent years. Adaptive cruise control is already a feature of many of the more up-market cars on the road, able to keep the car at a steady cruise and adjust the speed to maintain a safe distance away from other vehicles.

Lane monitoring and guidance is another key system, which can not only warn when the car is at risk of straying across lane edge markings, but also intervene to tug the vehicle back on course. These are technologies that contribute to an autonomous car. Surround-view cameras, lasers and radar are others that are employed to enable a car to be self-driving.

How Long Before You Will Be Able To Buy A Car Like This?

Should you really want one, that is. Not that long. Volvo, as well as other manufacturers (such as Mercedes-Benz), expect to have autonomous-capable cars on sale by 2020. Don’t all rush at once.

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Sue Baker is a seasoned motoring journalist with a love of all things automotive.