“I think features will creep in incrementally, and then one day the vehicle will actually be driving itself. It sounds like a revolution now, but it will actually happen very organically and very naturally,” says Raj Rajkumar, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Melon University – part of the team that designed the vehicle that won the Darpa Urban Challenge – a follow-up to the original Grand Challenge event.
Already, autonomous features – such as adaptive cruise control, self-parking and hazard awareness cameras – are becoming increasingly common features on cars. The next step may be semi-autonomous technology, such as that developed by a European project called Satre (Safe Road Trains for the Environment).
This project aims to design and build technology that allows vehicles to fall into semi-autonomous “platoons”, when travelling on highways, for example. The idea of this kind of project is to pack more cars onto limited road space, reduce congestion and use less fuel.
“Our highways are not necessarily being used efficiently,” says Sven Beiker, who is not involved with the project. “Even if you look at a highway during rush hour, not more than 20% to 30% of surface area is actually occupied by vehicles – “there is a lot of space left and right, in front and behind the vehicle.”
Intelligent cars should be able to drive much more closely together on fast roads, allowing them to slip-stream each other, reducing drag. As the computers are able to take a “big-picture” view of traffic on the road, they should also be able to reduce stop-start traffic.
In 2012, the Satre consortium of manufacturers and researchers, showed off a semi-autonomous road train of three cars, following a truck at a Volvo test track in Sweden. Each car – initially driven by a human – slots in behind the truck allowing a wireless system to take over the controls. Commands to steer, speed up and slow down all come from the driver of the lead vehicle. When the car wants to leave, the driver is able to take back control.
“As a driver in a road train, the idea is in fact to be able to both read the newspaper and eat breakfast whilst travelling at 90km/h,” says a plumy voiceover on a video that shows the trial. In the final system, the researchers envisage lots of cars “slaved” to a lead vehicle travelling at high speed along specific routes on motorways and highways.
If and when it becomes a reality, it may signal the beginning of the end for human drivers on most of our roads. Then, people who still want the pleasure of driving themselves may have to warn other road users that they are engaging in such a dangerous activity. Perhaps, then, we may have to consider reintroducing the red flag?