In Depth: The exciting technology that’s making driverless cars a reality

In Depth: The exciting technology that's making driverless cars a reality

As BMW enters the race to build a fully functional driverless, and with this year’s CES giving away 140,000sq ft of exhibition space to the concept, it’s no longer a case of if, but when will these vehicles arrive on our streets.

Had too many Jägermeisters? No worries, get yourself some kip and let the car do the driving.

Can’t find your vehicle in the parking lot? Don’t sweat it, the car will come to you.

This isn’t fantasy − tech companies and car manufacturers are teaming up to make it a reality.

The idea is that your car is merely another jigsaw piece in your ‘connected living’ lifestyle, with your phone acting as the control centre.

Traffic, weather and damage reports will be beamed directly to your phone long before you get close to your car in the hope that you’re better prepared for potential inconveniences.

Yes it’s fascinating, but how soon will this be a reality? And what will a driverless car future look like?

The future is (almost) here

Google’s fleet of experimental drone cars have already completed over 500,000 accident-free driverless miles around San Francisco.

BMW unveiled a driverless car that can drift and slalom around obstacles at CES this year.

Audi showed us its new automated-parking feature, which is controlled via a smartphone app and a 3G connection.

And, in a self initiated game of pious one-upmanship, Nissan made petrol heads feel briefly bad about the destruction of the planet by introducing a driverless version of its (relatively) super-selling electric car, the Leaf.

The fact is, driverless cars are happening. The technology has existed for some time but governments haven’t been so quick to respond.

Thankfully that’s changing. Legislation is being carefully considered across the EU and North America. In the US, Nevada enacted legislation in 2012 recognising and authorising driverless cars in the state, and the Department of Motor Vehicles can now officially issue driverless car licenses.

In the UK, the National Infrastructure Plan has ring-fenced a £10m prize-fund for any city that wants to be a test bed for new driverless car technology.

Milton Keynes has already begun a driverless car programme and it hopes to have 100 ‘pods’ − or, on closer inspection, ‘humiliating oblong death-traps’ might be a better name − very carefully tearing up Milton Keynes roads by 2017.

nissan leaf

Forward thinking

Major manufacturers and tech giants are teaming up to bring us a pleasant and mildly entertaining Knight Rider future, and not a disturbing Minority Report ‘Tom Cruise is still famous and eating placentas’ future.

"It will happen in stages," says Futurologist and BBC talking head, Tom Cheesewright.

"By 2017 the next iteration of adaptive cruise control will be widespread. Not only does it keep you a safe distance from the car in front, it keeps you in your lane. Add this to self parking and sat nav and you’re not far from an autonomous vehicle."

But he doesn’t think we’ll be buying them outright.

"It’s far more likely that you’ll be renting a driverless car, rather than buying one. With all the telemetry on board it will be very easy for manufacturers or third parties to lease them out and charge you based on your usage and how much you abuse the car. When it comes time for a service, the car could just take itself off to the garage and a replacement make it’s way to you."

The benefit of these partnerships is the subsidiary technology that comes out of the developing projects.

Car manufacturers make cars (wait, what? Slow down, Einstein) but tech companies do just about everything else.

This is why Google and Nvidia have teamed up with GM, Honda, Audi and Hyundai − because they need each other. Car manufacturers want to get their cars into your home (figuratively, not literally − although this self-folding car might not have gotten the memo) and tech companies want their systems in your car. This is the ‘connected living’ vision of the future.

states where driverless cars are legal

Constantly connected

We’ve seen endless articles about fleets of driverless cars, blah blah blah, reduced emissions, blah blah, and fewer road accidents. That’s all fine and important. But the real interest, outside of the powerpoint presentations for politicians, is the symbiotic relationship between your car and your phone − and whatever else in your home that’s connected to the internet.

Manufacturers want you to be constantly engaged in a seamless ballroom dance with your car.

If there’s a traffic jam on the way to work, your car will wake you up via a phone alert and suggest an alternative route or an earlier start.

If you’ve got a big trip planned for tomorrow and your car is sitting in a driveway low on energy, then it will take itself to one of the many automated charging points in your area.

The fridge is empty, you’re stuck at work and you’ve got a dinner party planned for that night? Your car will go and pick up your online shopping, presumably with the aid of a human loading the car up − we’re not at Transformer stage quite yet, and even if we were, you wouldn’t use your multi-million pound gadget to pick up a bag of courgettes and some asparagus from Walmart.

Tech manufacturers want your car to automate not just the driving but the experience too.

Your car should sense your mood when you step in and change the lighting and music accordingly.

The route to your destination changes depending on whether or not you fancy taking in a view, or getting to point B as fast as possible. You should be lathered with suggestions for local eateries and interesting places to visit.

This is the driverless car tech-companies envisage. The real driverless car rivalry will come not in the car technology, but which system is going to act as your in-car butler – Android or iPhone?

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