I’m from the generation that grew up watching Knight Rider.  Every Saturday evening with a packet of Skips crisps.  My Gran thought David Hasselhoff was ‘dishy,’ but I watched it for the car, I wanted a KITT, a car that I could summon via my watch to rescue me when in grave peril.

Thankfully, I don’t often find myself in grave peril but a car that drives itself, parks itself and picks me up would be useful – and now it seems – a real possibility.

Having done some research here are my top five facts about autonomous vehicles:

1) What does autonomous mean?

An autonomous vehicle is one that is capable of fulfilling the main transportation capabilities of a traditional car, but is also capable of sensing its environment and navigating without human input.

Sometimes called robotic cars, they currently exist mainly as prototypes and demonstration systems. As of 2015 the only self-driving vehicles that are commercially available are open-air shuttles for pedestrian zones that operate at 12.5 miles per hour.

self driving car

2) Does the technology exist?

Yes, the technology already exists. Both Audi and Mercedes Benz amongst other car manufacturers have already built fully autonomous vehicles that can operate up to 18 mph.  The only thing holding them back is regulation.  

At the recent CES 2015 in Las Vegas several car manufacturers unveiled their technology.  With BMW’s Remote Valet Parking Assistant, finding a parking space and parking your car could be a hassle of the past. Drivers just need to arrive at a venue and send the car off on its own to find an open space in a carpark. The sensors can detect unexpected obstacles like an incorrectly parked vehicle and just steer around them. After finding a suitable spot, it just parks, locks the doors, and waits for the driver to summon it back when they are done.

3) When will they be available?

According to Wired we should expect to see a phased approach, ‘rolling out cool new features in otherwise conventional cars. In three to five years, we can expect cars to do the heavy lifting during traffic jams and highway cruising, but cede control to their carbon-based occupants the rest of the time.

Beyond that comes the more difficult challenge of driving in urban arenas, where there are far more obstacles and variables, like pedestrians, cyclists, cabbies and the like. That’s a tougher nut to crack, but our cars will become increasingly autonomous over the next 25 years, and we can expect them to be fully autonomous by 2040.’

So it’s going to be a mix of letting the car do the driving, and still taking the wheel when you want to or need to.

Google believes that, “A limited-environment low-speed vehicle will be technologically and socially viable sooner than a vehicle capable of operating anywhere,”   Rather than taking a conventional car and making it fully automated Google is also piloting an unconventional two-seater test vehicle, known within Google as “Prototype”. The small, pod-style cars aim to get fully automated cars into everyday use. They look cute, have a top speed of only 25 miles per hour and low impact resistance – but perfect for nipping around towns and cities and if everyone was using them the most common accident is likely to be the odd dint and scratch. Google still has significant work to do before its software can handle all the situations a human driver can. But it will be easier to build, test, and market small vehicles for limited environments than to craft autonomous cars that can handle everything from high-speed freeway driving to city streets, they say.

4) What will they look like?

Visit the website behind the Mercedes F0 15 Luxury in Motion research car and you’ll find something that looks very different to Google’s prototype.


Mercedes is quick to point out that if you’re just looking at the technology then you’re missing the point – it’s a mobile living space.  It certainly looks the part, with large amounts glass to feel open and spacious and seats that turn around so you can face your fellow passengers to talk.  If you don’t feel like chatting, touch screens in every door give passengers access to the internet and a 360 degree view around them.  So you can see everything around you when you’re in the vehicle and keep track of exactly where your car is when you’re not.

5) Safer and greener driving

Smart technologies can operate cars a whole lot better and more efficiently than people.

“Ultimately the journey that the industry is on has benefits for safety and the environment too,” says a spokesperson from Jaguar Land Rover, which is investing heavily in self-drive software research.

Imagine a car that can communicate with the cloud to identify the location of accidents or road congestion ahead, and then automatically re-route, for instance. Or put yourself in a vehicle that can “talk” to traffic lights wirelessly and regulate your speed so as to hit a green light every time.

“That’s very efficient because when you’re stopping and starting that’s when you have the most load on the engine, which means more fuel use,” says the Jaguar Land Rover spokesperson.

It’s the promise of greater safety where autonomous driving really comes into its own, industry advocates claim. Ultimately, most accidents happen because of human error, says a spokesperson from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, a UK trade association.

“Computers don’t get bored or distracted, or take their eyes off the road because they want to change the radio station or make a phone call,” he maintains. He also notes that Google’s self-drive vehicle has never so much as nudged another car.

Coming to a street near you

With the UK government announcing a £10m trial that will see the first autonomous trial cars hitting the streets of three selected cities in 2015, it seems automated vehicles really are going to be a part of the not too distant future. My five year old keeps asking me when he can learn to drive but I’m now starting to wonder if he’ll ever need to. The next generations will benefit from safer, cleaner roads but they may also miss out on the pleasure that driving can bring.

What do you think?