/ Travel & Leisure

‘Smart’ cars – the end of independent driving?

Metal crash test dummy

It’s already possible to buy ‘smart’ cars that’ll stop themselves if you’re about to run into the back of another vehicle. But how far will this safety technology go? Could it take too much control away from drivers?

In the future, cars may be able to communicate with each other directly. They could alert vehicles behind them if they’re approaching a jam, which will then slow down automatically.

In the unlikely event of an accident, your car’s on-board computer could also contact the emergency services for you. And they could possibly even relay enough information about the crash for ambulance staff to know how badly injured you are before they arrive at the scene.

Crash tests raise concerns

However, I recently watched a series of crash tests being carried out at Volvo’s state-of-the-art safety centre in Sweden, which made me think twice about relying on new, high-tech safety systems.

One recreated a head-on collision between a new Volvo and a 10-year-old model, dramatically demonstrating the huge leap forward in car safety that’s been achieved over the past decade.

Another was supposed to show us how a new radar detection and collision-avoidance system on the latest Volvo S60 saloon would stop the car from crashing into a truck on a highway. However, human error in preperation meant that the system failed to kick in and the Volvo ploughed straight into the back of the massive truck.

Alert drivers are still essential

This was a graphic reminder that even the ‘smartest’ car has to be driven by an alert and observant motorist if accidents are to be avoided. They should not be relied upon, or used as an excuse to stop concentrating on what’s happening around you.

It also made me wonder about the validity of the proposed systems that allow cars to communicate and control their own speed. What would happen if there was a software malfunction and cars behind were given the wrong information? Instead of just one vehicle crashing, the result could be a massive pile up. So perhaps we shouldn’t be giving up our right to drive independently just yet.

Alan O says:
23 September 2010

Potentially, this is a good idea. Simply type in the post code of your journey end and sit back. In the event of a software fault, it should default back to manual. An awareness scanner of your functions would tell if you are receptive to go manual, or sound an alarm. Think of it, no more boy racers, no more half asleep school run mothers, no more drunks or druggie drivers. In manual mode, the ECU should limit the vehicle to 50mph for other than emergency use. Once the vehicle is at say, a supermarket, it will revert to manual via a transmitter in the car park. Taxis should not be any different. H.G.V. `s would need a bit more development.

Interesting I actually did a lecture on “auto traffic control” in the middle ’70’s (I am/was a electronic military guidance systems research engineer) The technology was virtually already there – it simply needed the capital and implementation.

The ‘software or hardware failure’ can be overcome by having dual systems to monitor control as in aircraft and missiles. The car fault described can be overcome by ensuring the car cannot be started without the collision prevention system being operational

The real problem would be the irresponsible driver operating the car without due care and attention – particularly when there are so many other drivers not insured or in roadworthy machines.

I predict there will be many crashes due to sleeping drivers because of prolonged inactivity.

I would strongly disapprove of any computer control being involved in driving a car and believe the driver should have 100% control at all times. For the very same reason I would not accept the start/stop systems that some car makers are now introducing in their models.This may save a little fuel but I do think that I should be the one to control whether the engine is running or not. I hope manufacturers will at least incorporate a system whereby this can be switched off completely if drivers so wish.

wrt the start-stop system – we have it in my gf’s MINI and I’ve never felt not in control when driving it. It only engages when the car’s stationary and the gear is in neutral and you re-start the engine by pressing down on the clutch – the natural thing to do when wanting to move off again. Personally, I think it’s a very clever system and you get used to it even in stop-start traffic. you can switch it off though 🙂

wrt ‘smart’ cars in general, I wouldn’t want to relinquish complete control over to a robot but electronic driver ‘aids’, such as ABS (almost standard?), traction control and electronic stability control are already in widespread use. even air bags are controlled by micro-chips. in the next 10 years lane departure warning systems will probably become standard. but none of this is a replacement for competent driving.

Computer control of industrial processes is extremely reliable but computers have a poor track record in vehicles. At present, computer malfunction results in problems such as cars that do not run properly and large bills to get them fixed. Perhaps some manufacturers are capable of making reliable vehicle computers but until this is the norm, we should proceed very carefully.

Just Me says:
19 January 2012

Excellent idea! Completely automated cars, FANTASTIC!

1) Remove the idiot from the system and we all stand a chance of getting from point A to point B
in one piece.
2) Road rage a thing of the past, giving the police a little time for more important issues.
3) Fuel economy up 70% because no one is accelerating like maniacs at every set of lights.
4) Insurance down by 60% because of fewer accidents.
5) Tailgating – Gone.
6) Speeding tickets down by 100% because the car is in control and not the fool.
7) Undertaking – Gone.
8) No more mobile phone deaths or accidents because of arrogant and selfish idiots.
9) Sat-Nav frustration down by 100% because the car knows where it is going.
10) Refusing to signal – Eliminated.
11) Thousands of funerals avoided every year.
12) Disability benefit claims down by 50% year on year.

Everyone happy, where is the downside?