The UK Government have announced that driverless cars are set to be tested on public roads by the end of the year.
Until now, it’s only been possible to test these ‘autonomous’ vehicles on private land but, with a change in legislation, by the end of 2013 they will be able to use low traffic rural roads and suburban streets.
Far from being a potential danger, the research team is sure that driverless cars will not only stick to the rules of the road, but longer-term will provide a potentially safer and more efficient mode of transport than when under the control of a human driver.
However, until the technology is fully developed and has been thoroughly tested under real traffic conditions, a backup driver will sit in the car, ready to take over, just in case reality doesn’t live up to the scientists’ confidence.
Driverless cars will operate by interrogating the local traffic environment using lasers and cameras as their ‘eyes’, and making adjustments accordingly.
They will then use this information not only to regulate their speed, but also adjust their position in response to what is happening around them, without anyone being involved.
This input can even be memorised by the car’s systems so that regular school runs and journeys to work become automatic commutes, freeing up the ‘driver’ to do other things in the car, or just take extra time to relax before the start of a working day.
Elsewhere, in the US, the states of Nevada, Florida and California have already passed legislation that allows autonomous cars to drive on the road.
Research so far has been focused on adapting an existing vehicle by adding autonomous technology to it. For instance, the Oxford University research team who have been at the forefront of autonomous technology in the UK have developed their knowledge using a Nissan Leaf.
However, manufacturers like Ford, Audi and Volvo are also beginning to take an interest, and are considering developing the technology as an integral element of their mid-range vehicles.
Of course, there are already driver assistance systems such as guided parking and adaptive cruise control that are proving of great benefit to many. However, handing over full control of the vehicle you are in to the car itself may be a step too far for the vast majority of the driving public.
So it's likely that for a few years yet, most drivers will prefer the feeling of control they get from sitting in the driving seat, moving the steering wheel, changing gear and working the pedals, even though they may actually be less safe than if they relinquished control.
That said, when driverless cars take to Britain's open roads for the first time this year, it will still be a landmark moment in the quest to make our country’s carriageways a safer place for all who use them.
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