The next decade is shaping up to see the biggest transformation in urban mobility since the first Model T Ford rolled off the production line in Detroit. This may sound a touch dramatic until you consider the huge impact that driverless cars look set to have have on society.
Never slow to adopt new technology, the UAE has been installing charging points across the country for electric cars, which it expects to account for 20% of all government vehicles by 2021. However, even the latest in green tech will seem antiquated when Audi’s first semi-autonomous A8 car takes to the country’s roads later this year.
Experts in the motor industry are predicting that by as soon as 2025 computers will take all of the work out of driving, with steering wheels and gauges mostly hidden from view as passengers face each other instead of looking forward.
Mercedes-Benz previewed this idea with its F 015 Concept, essentially a self-driving pod for four people powered by a fuel cell.
“Anyone who focuses solely on the technology has not yet grasped how autonomous driving will change our society,” said Dr Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz. “The car is growing beyond its role as a mere means of transport and will ultimately become a mobile living space.”
The F 015 represents level 5 in the five-tiers of autonomous tech, which currently sits at level 2 with features such as adaptive cruise control, park assist and lane assist now standard in most cars. The new Audi A8 is due to be the first car to advance to level 3.
“With level 3, we open the door to piloted driving where the driver is allowed to hand over responsibility to the car for highway driving,” said Dr Miklós Kiss, Audi’s head of driving assistance systems pre-development. Dr Kiss was sat in the back seat of an experimental Audi while I was behind the wheel – although not driving – at 130kmh on the German autobahn.
I handed over control of the car to a computer at the touch of a button and became a passenger in the driver’s seat. With no hands or feet on the controls, I turned to chat with Dr Kiss while the car drove itself along the motorway at high speed, negotiating bends, overtaking and merging back into its lane when it detected slower cars ahead and faster cars behind.
Level 3 is the tipping point where the term ‘assisted’ is replaced by ‘piloted’ and represents a major shift toward total autonomy. “Using cameras, laser and radar, the car identifies objects such as a moving truck or a tree and plans what to do next,” Dr Kiss said. “Its engine, steering and braking systems control everything so it’s not simply following the vehicle but making decisions on whether to pass, accelerate, brake or change lanes.
“Level 4 takes on the most demanding tasks, seeing for the driver. The driver is not needed at all under certain circumstances, like on a highway or finding a parking spot, and could even be sleeping. Level 5 is a completly driverless car that takes you from A to B no matter where it starts and ends.”
The industry has reached a crossroads where the lines between carmakers and software developers have blurred. Apple and Google are now building driverless vehicles while companies like Tesla drift somewhere in between.
Ford recently showcased its cooperation with IT heavyweights Intel and SAP at the carmaker’s Research and Innovation Center in Silicon Valley in Palo Alto, California.
Ford claims that attracting non-traditional partners helps take it far beyond just manufacturing cars. Last month, Ford announced a joint initiative with Domino’s Pizza to develop a self-driving delivery car. On the surface, this sounds like the ultimate in lazy innovations until you realize the car only delivers to the kerbside and customers will need to move further from their couch than just the front door to collect their food.
In trials currently underway in Ann Arbor, Michigan, customers receive delivery of their pizza via a hybrid-powered, driverless Ford Fusion. The delivery is tracked with a GPS app and text messages sent out as the car approaches. The customer enters a four-digit code in the app to lower the car’s back window to retrieve their meal.
“As delivery experts, we’ve been watching the development of self-driving vehicles with interest as we believe transportation is undergoing fundamental, dramatic changes,” said Patrick Doyle, Domino’s president and CEO. “This is the first step in an ongoing process of testing that we plan to undertake with Ford.”
Ford hopes to roll out this technology within four years, and has plans to deliver much more than pizza. “As we increase our understanding of the business opportunity for self-driving vehicles to support the movement of people and goods, we’re pleased to have Domino’s join us in this important part of the development process,” said Sherif Marakby, Ford VP, autonomous and electric vehicles.
Robert Tercek, an interactive content creator, said the move toward driverless cars is creating more possibilities for ride-sharing schemes rather than vehicle ownership. “Rather than owning a car, it would be something you subscribe to which lets you personalize the interior and comfort settings through the app,” he said.
“In the same way consumer electronics has moved to faceless hardware without buttons, manufacturers now fit ports through the interior so you can operate some functions through your smartphone,” he said. This future may not be as far away as you think if you consider how Bluetooth technology can pick out your music library and stream it through a car’s entertainment system as soon as you get in.
It’s a small step from streaming music to owning an app instead of a car, said Mr Tercek. “With level 5 autonomy, the driverless ride-share car appears, you plug in your phone and every device like your contacts book, music library, Google maps, diary, seat and climate settings will automatically integrate into the vehicle which will drop you at your destination and then continue on its own to pick up its next passenger,” he said.
It seems the future could be closer than you realize.