Latest High-Tech Cars May Keep Drivers’ Hands off the Wheel

These days, it seems that you can’t open a newspaper (if anyone, in fact, still does that), or read the news without hearing about Google’s latest acquisition or invention. Now the Internet giant is working on ground-breaking technology: the driverless automobile.

A prototype of Google’s new self-driving car—a two-passenger electric vehicle with buttons to turn the car on and off, but without a steering wheel, accelerator pedal or brake pedal—was unveiled in May. Without a driver at the wheel, the automobile is instead guided by a light detection and ranging (LIDAR) rotating sensor on the vehicle’s roof that scans the car’s surroundings to determine its driving route, as well as to identify such everyday obstacles as pedestrians, bicyclists and other cars.

Although Google has come out as the clear front-runner in the development race for such advanced automobile technology, major automakers are also getting into the game—albeit at a more conservative pace. To date, some current automobiles already have automated features that perform certain tasks—such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and collision-avoidance braking—to new car models.

According to a recent report by Lux Research, cars with these “Level 2” features are expected to account for 92 percent of a worldwide billion-per-year autonomous car market in 2030. Only 8 percent of the market will go to “Level 3” automobiles, which would be primarily driven hands-free, but would allow the driver to regain control of the vehicle in an emergency.

In addition, the research firm doesn’t expect any fully automated vehicles on the road by 2030. “We consider that ultimate level, Level 4, to be full autonomy, where you just get in and you don’t interact with the car at all,” explained Cosmin Laslau, lead analyst at Lux Research. “And we don’t think that’s coming by 2030. The biggest opportunity that we see will be actually from the Level 2 features, which are the more conventional advances that we’re already starting to see come onto the market from higher-end developers.”

Hermann Winner, director and professor of automotive engineering at Germany’s Technische Universitat Darmstadt, agreed. “We will start with a partially automated car, then a highly automated one,” he said, adding that he doesn’t expect a completely autonomous car—one with no specific limitations in respect to traffic environment or driving speed—on the market for the next 40 years. “The big challenge to total automation is getting safety approval. Even if you assume the system is ready by 2020, approval is going to be problematic.”

Winner is scheduled to address the challenges facing the development of the driverless car during the panel session “IT Meets the Automobile: Interactive Advanced Vehicle Technologies and Self-Driving Cars” at the ◊ASME [www.asme.org]◊ Advanced Design and Manufacturing Impact Forum in Buffalo, New York, this August. Visit www.asme.org for more information.