Autopilots steer cars through traffic jams

Autopilots steer cars through traffic jams

Do you still enjoy driving in the increasing traffic? Driving pleasure, as promised by a well-known German automaker, usually falls by the wayside in the heavy traffic of inner cities. The fun goes down the drain. Driving degenerates into stress. It's no wonder, then, that car manufacturers are pushing ahead with work on autopilot development at full speed. But it will not work without you as a driver in the future.

The problem described above does not only apply to city traffic. Even on the freeways, especially at rush hour, it's impossible to drive sensibly. Often you get stuck in traffic jams after only a short time. Things only move at a snail's pace – if at all. Frustration is inevitable. Wouldn't it be great in such a situation if you could reach for the newspaper or the cell phone and the car makes its way through the traffic all by itself??

Admittedly, we will have to wait a long time for this to happen. Mercedes is already working on this. "We have recognized that driving a car is not always a pleasure, but sometimes also a burden, and we want to give drivers the opportunity to delegate certain tasks", says Jochen Hermann, head of development for driving assistance systems at Mercedes. The competition is also working on the gradual introduction of Autopilot, which makes the driver (almost) superfluous in certain situations.

The state of development is quite respectable, as Professor Raul Rojas (Freie Universität Berlin) explains. There already different vehicles without guidance in a robotics project were developed. For example, there is already an automatic emergency brake, assistance with lane guidance and help when parking. The prototypes are even capable of more along these lines.

The first driverless cars drove through the desert near Las Vegas back in 2005. However, test vehicles have already been on the road in Germany. Rojas' students sit hands-free behind the wheel of their VW Passat and let themselves be driven through Berlin. "But in general, we are in a testing and experimentation phase, and real products are only slowly crystallizing in the process," Rojas says.

BMW has sent a test vehicle autonomously along the highway. Mercedes wants to go one step further with the new S-Class in 2013, according to developer Hermann. The vehicle will then be equipped for the first time with a stereo camera. It will be able to see spatially and therefore take the wheel at certain moments. The driver can relax and is much more rested at the end of the traffic jam, Hermann explains. That sounds wonderful, doesn't it??

Volvo also wants to give drivers more personal space in traffic jams. Head of research Paul Mertens, according to a report in the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung, is working with his team on the development of a system that "attaches" the car to the car in front, protected by radar, up to a speed of 50 mph. The system will go into series production in 2014.

But research is already well advanced not only in Europe, but also in America. In Victorville (U.S. Military base), autonomous cars have been driving around in controlled environments for years now. Even GOOGLE is exploring latest technology on a driverless car thanks to a special permit on public roads. The supplier Continental has completed the first endurance tests. The result is impressive. According to Continental, a prototype has traveled 6000 miles on public roads and in highly automated mode without an accident.

Rojas explains why you have not yet been able to enjoy Autopilot: "The sensors are still too expensive for standard equipment, especially if they are to be of really good quality. The legal situation has not yet been clarified. The environment must be adapted to autonomous driving, he says. "You need a network between the individual road users and the infrastructure, just like with airplanes, Rojas points out. "That makes it even more expensive."

What will change as a result of autonomous driving? At the moment, it's still mainly a question of technical fascination. An improved driving comfort for the individual. But in the long term, developers are unanimous in their belief in societal benefits. Hermann (Mercedes) sees above all an important step toward accident-free driving. And Rojas formulates his visions:

"In the future, autonomous cars will be like cabs that we can all share. We no longer need our own car, we can simply be picked up. In this utopia, traffic is always flowing, there are no more parked cars and far fewer CO2 emissions."

But beware of too much euphoria about the driver's personal freedom during the drive. The Vienna Convention of 1968, which is still valid today, states:

"Every driver should be able to check his car at any time and take timely and appropriate care."The reach for the cell phone or the newspaper as described at the beginning of the article remains taboo. Mercedes measures precisely whether the hands are gripping the steering wheel. After 10 seconds, the system sounds an alarm; after 15 seconds, it is switched off. This is to prevent the driver from relying too much on Autopilot.

It's all just dreams of the future? Certainly not! But the question is when we will actually be ready for a car to pick us up to take us to a doctor's appointment or to the grocery store. Even you can't really imagine that yet, can you??

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