Cars that drive themselves could soon hit our streets, with Ford being the latest to develop this technology. Ford’s test car uses automatic steering and braking to avoid collisions. Is this the future of driving?
A car that drives itself isn’t a new idea. Back in the 1950s, American sci-fi comics and popular science journals were full of cars that piloted themselves along newly-built highways while their occupants played dominoes and listened to Chuck Berry records.
However, like bubble-top roofs or chromed tail fins, the self-driving car soon faded from public view. It became the stuff of Hollywood fantasy (the Batmobile, KITT from Knight Rider) rather than scientific debate. Finally, that’s set to change.
Ford’s car steers itself out of danger
You’ve probably heard about Google’s driverless cars already. These modified Toyota Priuses have completed thousands of accident-free miles in the US, using laser sensors to steer themselves out of trouble.
Then there’s Mercedes’ new S-class. This flagship powerhaus has Park Assist to park itself, Distronic Plus to maintain a set distance from the car in front and even Steering Assist to (you guessed it) steer itself, albeit only at low speeds. Mercedes says the next S-class, due in 2020, will be able to drive autonomously. Arch rivals Audi and BMW have similar plans.
At the affordable end of the market, Ford has just revealed a self-steering system for the Focus, which will automatically steer you out of the way of obstacles, stopped cars or pedestrians. Check it out in Ford’s own video:
It’s still at the prototype stage, but Ford’s vice president of product development, Barb Samardzich is already talking about how it could reduce accidents.
Safety and the self-driving car
I don’t know whether these technologies will make our roads safer or not. In truth, nobody does. Having tried some of the systems mentioned – and many others – I think they probably will. But the infamous Volvo S60 demonstration we witnessed in 2010 proves that microchips and sensors are far from infallible.
I also worry that these additional safety nets discourage motorists from concentrating on the task at hand. Namely, keeping charge of more than a tonne of metal, plastic and glass. Today’s drivers may be playing Angry Birds rather than dominoes, but the dangers to pedestrians and cyclists are just as real.
Ultimately, it will be legislation that decides the fate of the self-driving car. If car companies can be sued when a driving system causes an accident (and it will happen), they’ll drop the technology like a stone. And that would be a shame, because self-driving cars could save lives.
They might even save the sanity of those us who commute every day in London traffic. But that’s a whole other conversation…