Error parsing XSLT file: \xslt\FacebookOpenGraph.xslt Autonomous tech analysis: Truly hands-off
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Autonomous tech analysis: Truly hands-off

Date: 23 December 2016   |   Author: Jack Carfrae

Near incessant chat about autonomous cars means they're starting to feel old before their time. Bits and pieces of automatic technology have gradually made their way onto cars, so even relatively basic models are now autonomous to a degree, particularly when it comes safety tech (think electronic stability control and automatic emergency braking systems), but the prospect of a vehicle capable of genuinely driving itself still seems a long way off.

However, fleets have to wait little more than a year for vehicles that really can travel without the driver's input, albeit for short periods of time.

"It's probably going to be 2018 that we'll see vehicles you could say are autonomous as people expect," says Matthew Avery, director of research at vehicle safety expert Thatcham Research. "From 2018, you're likely to be able to take your hands off the wheel for maybe three minutes, and the vehicle will automatically move between lanes - but all of that automation will only be permitted on the motorway."

Legislation, rather than the technology itself, is the decider behind the timing: "In 2018, there's a change to regulations around steering," adds Avery. "That will enable the vehicle to continuously steer itself with what is called ACSF: Automatically Commanded Steering Function. That will then enable the vehicle to steer itself within a lane and, in certain circumstances, move between lanes, overtake another vehicle, and so on."

Although self-driving cars are now achingly close, the prospect of leaving the vehicle entirely to its own devices is still pie in the sky.

"It's likely that the car will expect you're going to monitor it," adds Richard Cuerden, chief scientist at the Transport Research Laboratory. "Every minute or so many seconds, you're going to have to tell it you're still in the loop, either by clicking on a button, touching the steering wheel or whatever the mechanism might be from that manufacturer."

The next big milestone is 2021, which, according to Avery, is when you'll get cars driving independently for extended periods of time.

"The step on from [the 2018 stage] is around 2021, when the car will do that automated driving but you will get more than three minutes - and you probably don't need to be part of the driving process at all. You're still going to be restricted to motorways, but it would mean that if you were to drive from, say, Exeter to Glasgow and not touch the steering wheel at all, the car would do the whole journey for you."

It isn't just the driving part that's gradually becoming automated, either. Work is underway to develop software that can independently provide fleet operators with an early heads-up when parts are on the cusp of wearing out.

"Let's take the example of a rental company like Hertz," says Arun Srinivasan, executive vice-president at Bosch UK. "If Hertz knows some of its cars are coming in for repairs or there's servicing required in the next 100km, if they get advance notice of these because of the way they can monitor the deterioration of components within the car, then it's much easier for them to take those cars in and out of service accordingly. It's a much more intelligent way of going about service intervals - and that's just as useful for a fleet manager."

Future concept

2. 169626_Concept _26

It's more than a little cutting edge, but Volvo's C26 interior concept is an idea of how swanky cabins could become if autonomous car technology marches on at a rate of knots.  

"It shows how an interior would work if the rest of a car were an autonomous vehicle," says Selwyn Cooper, Volvo's head of business sales. "The seats would recline, the steering wheel would move away and you could stretch and move around.

"There's a large digital display that would fold out from the passenger side of the dashboard, so as a driver, you would literally sit back in your seat and do other things, such as answering your emails."
With the emphasis strictly on the word 'concept', the technology in the C26 would be smart enough to time journeys so the 'driver' can finish the task on arrival, even if that means making the trip last a bit longer.  

"If you have a 30-minute journey, you'll be able to go on Netflix, for example, choose a 30-minute TV programme, and there's talk of the technology being sophisticated enough to time the trip accordingly," adds Cooper.

"If your journey is quicker than expected and you reach your destination but you don't want to miss the end of your programme, you can ask the car to take a longer route and, using the satnav and GPS rerouting, it will get to your destination as the programme finishes. You effectively hand over control to the car so you can use the time when it's driving you."