13 March 2015

The swings and roundabouts of driverless cars

With polluting diesels potentially on the way out in the not-too-distant future and hybrid and electric cars shouting from the rooftops about how green they are, the future of motoring is all going to be down to clever technology, and the hot topic at the moment is driverless cars.

Google has its hands in so many pies that it’s no surprise the company has been developing autonomous vehicles for a while, trialling and perfecting its systems using cute little bubble cars and also normal cars like the Lexus RX and Toyota Prius. Less of you will know that prestige German car maker Audi has also been shovelling loads of effort into self-driving cars, and it might leave you open-mouthed if you learn that an RS7 sped around the Hockenheim formula one circuit in Germany at speeds of almost 150mph with nobody inside, and an A7 piloted itself 550 miles from San Francisco to Las Vegas.

Driverless Audi RS7 Hockenheim Volvo Oliver Hammond motoring automotive writer for Carrot Insurance blog


For several years now, various makes and models have been able to automatically brake, steer you into tight spots during parallel parking manoeuvres, detect the difference between pedestrians and cyclists and drive a set distance behind the car in front by means of radars. It therefore really isn’t far off before fully autonomous cars will be able to drive between set points and then eventually be programmed to drive to any postcode you enter.

In Europe they are currently perfecting clever technology that will use smartphones, servers and cameras, allowing you to say goodbye to your car at the entrance to a multi-storey car park and go off shopping while it finds and parks in an available space all by itself. When you’re ready to go home, you’ll be able to use your smartphone app to summon the car so it meets you at the entrance. If it’s an electric car, you can even tell it to recharge itself on the way. Car park phobia will be a thing of the past.

Driverless cars autonomous parking Volvo Oliver Hammond motoring automotive writer for Carrot Insurance blog


Here in Blighty, four cities will be used for driverless vehicle trials, Greenwich with its golf-buggy-like Meridian shuttle, the pavements of Milton Keynes witnessing Lutz Pathfinder vehicles trundling along, Bristol testing the BAE Wildcat extreme 4×4 vehicle and Coventry also set for trials.

Driverless cars Meridian Shuttle Greenwich UK Oliver Hammond motoring automotive writer for Carrot Insurance blog


The benefits of driverless cars will be enormous, from the ability to take people on set routes such as to and from hospitals and train stations, to taking people home if they’ve knocked back a few too many beers or feel too unwell to drive. Motorists who are tired but haven’t completed their journeys will be able to let their cars take over and do the rest, and your car will probably even be able to go and collect your Indian takeaway in the future, paying for it using contactless technology.

Ignoring the guns fitted in Holland & Holland Range Rovers, many executive cars already have posh wooden office tables, fridges and drinks cabinets for your champagne, massage chairs, large screens showing satellite TV and sound systems so good they put most of our Hi-Fis at home to shame. Just think how cool nights out will become if your driverless car takes you and your friends to your favourite restaurant in this kind of luxury. For people who have uni or office work to do, you’ll be able to just sit at the table and get cracking, letting your car do the rest.

Driverless autonomous piloted cars Volvo - Oliver Hammond motoring automotive writer for Carrot Insurance blog


Apart from the increase in laziness, couch potatoes slumped at home while their cars run errands for them, there are some major questions still hanging over driverless cars. An obvious one is insurance, as it’s still unclear who will be to blame when autonomous cars take to roads still used by normal cars driven by humans. The law, Highway Code and driving test will all need updating and maybe people won’t even need to take driving lessons and tests in the future if cars all drive themselves. On the other hand, technology can throw a wobbly sometimes, so it’d be wise if people still need to take driving tests so they can control their cars if the technology fails.

The mapping systems inside driverless cars will need to be able to find driveways and figure out what a pavement is, and the cameras, sensors, radars and computers will need to be resistant to extreme weather, as it’s no good if driverless cars conk out on foggy days.

Driverless autonomous piloted cars Bosch - Oliver Hammond motoring automotive writer for Carrot Insurance blog


Hybrid and electric cars are eye-wateringly expensive as it is, so fully robotic cars will cost even more, preventing them becoming a quick success. Other abilities will also need integrating, such as automated reversing and being able to detect emergency vehicle sirens and police telling them to pull over, otherwise ambulances would be hindered and police ignored.

Motoring will never be the same and is definitely heading towards sci-fi-like highways with futuristic vehicles scurrying up and down them like ants, vehicles having been made even safer thanks to technology. The future may end up being less fun if you love driving, though, so I hope cars will still have an override allowing them to be taken on Sunday afternoon spins or round race tracks.

Whether you can’t wait until all vehicles are automated or you’re a bit Stone Age and hope all this clever technology blows its fuse, we’d love to hear your views, so get in touch by social.

Oliver Hammond

Written by Oliver Hammond

Oliver is an established freelance motoring writer, published journalist and automotive copywriter based in Manchester. He regularly reviews cars and covers events and launches as editor of petroleumvitae.com and his articles appear in various magazines each month. No relation to Richard from Top Gear, he’s got a weakness for luxo-barges, proper 4x4s and oddball cars.