Autonomous driving. What does that mean to you? To some, the merest mention of a future where cars will effectively drive themselves, with little to no involvement from the driver is all a bit Orwellian. More 1984 than 2014.
A conversation over a glass or two of cherryaid in the PetrolBlog Arms would inevitably lead to much muttering, with complaints that a self-driving car is a prospect we’d much rather do without. We’re drivers, for goodness sake, and drivers like to drive.
And of course, we do. But is autonomous driving really such a big problem?
Modern cars are already well-equipped in the act of making things easier for us. The temperature of the cabin can be set to just so. The seat and steering wheel position can be set to his or hers. The wipers will wipe automatically and the lights will, um, light automatically.
Much as we don’t like to admit it, we quite enjoy some of the creative comforts. A heated seat is a delightful indulegence on a cold morning and – a recent discovery for PetrolBlog – a heated steering wheel, which is simply wonderful.
Then there’s digital radio, which is fast becoming a must-have option here at PBHQ, not that PB is in any kind of position to splash out on a new car.
Autonomous driving does – of course – takes things to an entirely new level. Last year, PetrolBlog was invited to Gothenburg to check out some of the new safety devices being developed by Volvo.
Two things became apparent during the drip. One, when it rains in Gothenburg, it bloody rains. But secondly, a future of autonomous driving is nothing to be scared of. In fact, it’s probably something to embrace.
Much of the technology demonstrated in Gothenburg will find its way on to the Volvo cars you could be driving in a matter of years. In fact, some of the features will be present on the all-new XC90, scheduled to to be unveiled at the 2014 Paris Motor Show.
We witnessed a Volvo V40 which could park itself – with nobody sat in the car. A V60 with David Attenborough style animal recognition techniques. And another V60 with an eery ability to see pedestrians in the dark.
But arguably the most controversial piece of kit was the Adaptive Cruise Control with steer assist, itself a development of the adaptive cruise control system already found in current Volvos. We sat, hands crossed, feet away from the pedals as the V60 obidiently followed the Volvo in front. Unnerving stuff, but the way in which the V60 adjusted its speed and road position was genuinely impressive.
Imagine those theme park rides you may have experienced as a child. The ones in which you sat behind the wheel of a car, only to find it propelled under its own electric steam, following its own Scalextric style path around the track.
Only in the Volvo, you have the ability to override the system and go your own way. Something that – try as we might – the little Noddy car at the theme park never gave us the opportunity to do.
Crucially, Volvo told us that – in the final development of the technology – the system will insist that two hands are placed on the wheel in order for the cruise control to work. So you can forget about those photos famously doing the rounds – you’re unlikely to be able to complete last night’s sudoku puzzle as you glide up the M62.
But here’s the thing. When you think about your typical commute, how much of it could be considered to be thrilling and exciting? The advertising-led image of big skies, open roads and smiling faces? It just isn’t.
The reality is more light drizzle, a congested ring road and Steve ‘love the show’ Wright. Not to mention the ageing Astramax van in front, fog light turned on, blue smoke bellowing from the exhaust.
Anything that helps to make the tedium of everyday driving a little more pleasant has to be a good thing, right?
Recently I found myself stuck in five lanes of traffic on the M25 – hardly the definition of motoring nirvana. But the drudgery of the experience was lifted in no small part by the adaptive cruise control on the Volvo S80 I was testing.
By setting the speed to an optimistic 60mph, the S80 majestically and gracefully followed the flow of the traffic. Bringing the car to halt when required and pulling away when the queue moved on. Brilliant. It made the M25 seem almost bearable.
And park assist, a system where the car will either parallel or reverse park your car for you, is now finding its way on to affordable cars. Heck, I’ve even had the chance to experience it on the Vauxhall Adam.
Now you may well be the world’s best parksman and couldn’t possibly benefit from such a tool. Ah, but what of the other driver? The kind who could quite easily knock your front wing during a half-baked parking manoeuvre. If the system is doing it for them, there’s little to no chance of you coming back to find your prized possession has gained an extra layer of unwanted paint on the offside front wing.
The point is, in situations where it’s less about the driving and more about the routine, anything that takes away the tedium should be embraced. Nobody is taking away your Sunday morning Dawn Raid. And you can still take the long way home. In fact, the long way home may turn out to be quieter as a result of drivers taking the ‘easy’ way home.
At last year’s unveiling of the Ford Mustang in Barcelona, Ford also outlined its vision of an autonomous future. According to Ford, we can expect vehicle “platooning” – in which vehicles travelling in the same direction sync up their movements to create ‘road trains’ – to enter mainstream models in the mid-term future.
In the longer term, we can expect fully autonomous navigation and parking, with cars communicating with each other. Think of it as a social network for cars. Only without selfies and photos of surfboarding cats.
Sure, until the technology is perfected, we have every reason to be concerned about its safety in the real world. And you can’t ignore the privacy issue, with the car able to store data on where you’ve been, when you’ve been there and the speed at which you drove there. Let’s also not forget the potential for hackers to override your vehicle, taking your car on some kind of virtual joyride, whilst you’re still sat at the wheel.
But in PetrolBlog’s world, things are more simple than this. We love nothing more than waking at the crack of dawn and going for a blast along our favourite B-road. But equally, we’ve had to endure far too many early morning or late night wafts to the airport to know that settling back whilst your car does most of the work can be a good thing.
We saw enough evidence in Gothenburg to suggest that autonomous driving is in safe hands with Volvo. So we’re eagerly awaiting the trial of 100 driverless cars in Gothenburg, scheduled to take place in 2017.
Put it this way. If autonomous driving is kept away from our B-roads and all the people who loathe driving are kept in one place, it has to be a good thing. Right or wrong, it’s going to be fascinating watching the technology unfold.