Everywhere you look, there’s an automated car parking itself, or another flying/swimming/space craft being “launched”. How much of this is simply the result of mechanical geeks with big research and development grants? How much of it is likely to actually influence the cars we drive tomorrow?
The biggest word in next-generation automotive discourse is “automation”. It seems to be a swearword when uttered in the company of car enthusiasts, and it’s peculiar that the public would have so many reservations when automation was the very point of the exercise when the first car was built.
The next step in the inevitable evolution of the industry is vehicles that can drive themselves, navigate traffic and find their own parking place while you win five minutes at the grocery counter.
This is not a pipe dream. Mercedes-Benz’s research vehicle, the S500 Intelligent Drive, drove Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche onto the stage at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September. By itself!
The same car was tested on a 100km drive, with the driver there simply as a back up. It parked, stopped at traffic lights, yielded for pedestrians and anticipated other vehicles’ erratic behaviour, such as changing lanes without indicating.
In Volvo’s test vehicle, an autonomous parking system enables it to drop you off at the entrance to your destination, find a parking place and then text you to let you know where it is! And, when you’re done with whatever grand affair you were attending, you can tell it to come and pick you up. Again, by itself.
Why aren’t we being driven to work yet, and sleeping off that last 40 minutes we currently lose out on every morning in order to “beat the rush”? Autonomous vehicles have been in research and development for more than 25 years, but now production-ready models are running around the Google campus and German and Swedish manufacturing facilities.
So why aren’t the manufacturers selling them yet? The answer is legislation. The potential for legal issues when things go wrong in what is essentially a box of highly sophisticated cameras, sensors and wiring, is understandably daunting for manufacturers – as it should be.
Of course, there’s also a cost element. Because this is technology aimed at the commuter market, it needs to be reasonably affordable. Currently, a car like the S500 Intelligent Drive would only be within the reach of top European executives.
Even so, when the financial investment behind these products is considered, it becomes clear that these are not fanciful pipe dreams. Investors are serious about seeing returns. This is an idea very much meant for mass production.
Of course, there are other hitches in the motoring industry. Even though it has come through the recent tough economic times far better than other industries, it has been affected by the global recession.
In SA, labour instability has foiled plans to increase production capacity, and globally the suppliers of electronics and chassis elements are sceptical about being able to keep up with the projected demands from manufacturers over the next year. The motor industry may appear to be accelerating at breakneck speed, but there are more obstacles lying in wait than one might expect. For instance, would the motoring public be ready to adopt even half of the innovations being developed?
While enthusiasts agonise about the likely death of car culture and driving pleasure, the truth is that most people own cars because, well, they have to get to work. Yet, despite the volume of sales, i10s and Corollas are not the vehicles we think about when we dream of “driving pleasure”. We think classics, M-cars, supercars and exotics. Specifically, Leisure Wheels readers think Defenders and Cruisers, and taking them up a rocky path in the mountains.
For those for whom cars are not about getting from A to B, there will always be a passion for driving and little-boy-racer excitement about vehicles. There will always be a market for them.
But you don’t have to worry about evolution if you’re an off-road fan. There would be no point in automating 4×4 vehicles. Or would there?