Autopilot cars set for take-off

Look ma, no hands ... Volkswagen's Temporary Auto Pilot in operation.
Look ma, no hands ... Volkswagen's Temporary Auto Pilot in operation.

AS autonomous vehicles loom, opinions are split over the human touch.

The car industry is working towards an accident-free future but remains divided over how to achieve it.

Autonomous vehicles that can drive without a human behind the wheel are on the agenda for several major companies, including Volkswagen and General Motors, but safety-led company Volvo believes humans must always retain control.

Volkswagen recently revealed its Temporary Auto Pilot system that can take over driving tasks such as speed and steering of the vehicle up to 130km/h.

This is the latest development from Volkswagen, which has developed several autonomous vehicles during the past six years.

The German manufacturer famously won a 2005 autonomous vehicle contest organised by the US Department of Defence with a Touareg soft-roader nicknamed Junior that drove itself over more than 200 kilometres of off-road terrain.

Similar technology was used last year to guide an Audi TT up the famous Pikes Peak hill climb course in Colorado.

The difference between Volkswagen's early autonomous efforts and the new Temporary Auto Pilot (TAP) system is its use of production-ready components. Where Junior relied on a complex system of cameras and large onboard computer processors, TAP uses existing technology such as adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning.

The executive director of Volkswagen Group Research, Professor Jurgen Leohold, believes TAP is a big step towards a practical application of the autopilot concept.

''One conceivable scenario for its initial use might be in monotonous driving situations [such as] in traffic jams or over sections of a driving route that are exceedingly speed-limited,'' he says.

He claims the introduction of a production version would improve safety but insists the driver must retain responsibility for the car.

''Above all, what we have achieved is an important milestone on the path towards accident-free driving,'' he says.

''Nonetheless, the driver always retains driving responsibility and is always in control. The driver can override or deactivate the system at any time and must continually monitor it.''

A spokesman for Volkswagen Australia, Karl Gehling, says the local operation is watching the developments closely but there has been no confirmation about when TAP could be available to consumers. He admits there have been discussions locally about autonomous cars but will not reveal details.

BMW has also announced plans for an autopilot-style system that will be available on its new i3 electric car. Called Traffic Jam Assistant, the system can control the vehicle's speed and steering input. Unlike Volkswagen's TAP, the BMW system requires the driver to keep at least one hand on the steering wheel and only operates up to 40km/h.

Meanwhile, Volvo, the Swedish brand famous for its safety innovations, has ruled out developing its own autonomous car. Despite introducing technology that can detect a potential accident and automatically brake, the company believes humans need to remain in control of the car.

''I think you'll always find a situation where a driver will need control. You can't foresee every circumstance,'' the technical manager for Volvo Australia, David Pickett, says.

But that view is not shared by the chief executive of Google, Eric Schmidt, who is pushing the internet company's autonomous cars program.

''Your car should drive itself,'' Schmidt said last year. ''It just makes sense. It's a bug that cars were invented before computers.''

The company has already covered more than 1600 kilometres of testing with autonomous cars. The internet giant claims its goal is to improve road safety, reduce carbon emissions and give people more time.

Topics:  drive motoring

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