The age of the driverless car is soon upon us

FLEET CAR SPECIAL IN ASSOCIATION WITH FMG: By 2020, self-driving cars may be commonplace, opening up a new world of hassle-free travel and on-the-go executive productivity.

by Richard Bremner
Last Updated: 11 Feb 2015

It's 1 February, 2020. Jemima Spiggins is going to work early, and her new company car is ready. And that doesn't merely mean it will start despite the wintry weather. There may be a freeze on outside, but the car's interior is already cosy, its cabin and seats warming in the hour before she leaves, just as she set them to last night via her smartphone.

A few years ago, Jemima's pre-dawn start might have disturbed the neighbours, but no longer - this plug-in, petrol-electric hybrid will depart with a near-silent whirr, its battery fully charged by the inductive discharge pad embedded in her driveway.

A good thing, that pad, she often muses - there was a day years back when she absent-mindedly allowed her old plug-in hybrid to roll down the drive with its cable still tethered to the wall socket, instantly wiping out the entire year's fuel savings.

'Heathrow, Terminal 5 departures,' Jemima intones as she buckles up, her car's infotainment system logging the destination and scanning potential routes for jams. Traffic is still light, so no need for diversions yet. It should be a 20-mile ride and drive, the petrol engine aboard Jemima's company car is unlikely to fire up, its battery pack good for 40 miles before it needs a boost.

Ride and drive? Having driven the car out of her own driveway, Jemima lets it take over, steering, accelerating and braking entirely on its own while she gets stuck into the morning's emails and texts. No need to pound away on a keyboard - her car will take dictation.

A quick real-time update tells her that the car will make a diversion from the motorway after all, a crash between old-school, radar-free cars having closed a lane. Crashes are a lot less frequent these days, she reflects, while idly wondering where the navigation will take her.

It's rarely the same route, her car responding to intelligence from roadside beacons, other cars and the traffic news, all collated in the cloud and sent via Wi-Fi and the mobile networks.

Just 10 minutes later, she rejoins the motorway and 10 minutes after that she's edging into the melee of taxis and trippers outside Terminal 5. Jemima steps out, swipes a shortcut command into her smartphone and doesn't even look back to see her car head away, driverless, its destination the long-term car park battery-charging bay that she booked online last night.

She won't see it until she summons it again from T5 arrivals 36 hours later, although it will have been busy, recharging itself by positioning itself over an induction pad that will automatically rejuice its battery without the need for any cables - or human interaction.

Before she boards her return flight tomorrow, Jemima will turn the heater on remotely again so it's nice and warm by the time she lands. And in the meantime, her car will have been silently downloading the latest mapping data, its brain benefitting from a reflash of updated software supplied by its maker.

Fanciful? Actually, no. All the hardware, software and knowhow to make this technological fantasy real exists today.

Google has been testing self-driving cars for years - presumably so drivers can spend more of their lives using its web services while commuting - and most major manufacturers are experimenting with them too. What's preventing us from having self-driving cars is mainly the law, whose regulations do not yet allow such machines on the roads.

The car-makers believe the day will come - though not for several years - but, in the meantime, many of the sub-systems needed to build a self-driving car are already on the market.

Indeed, Honda's Legend could self-steer between a motorway's white lines as long ago as 2006, besides applying the brakes in an emergency. And cars have had radar-governed cruise control for 15 years.

The latest versions of these systems are still more sophisticated. Take Mercedes's top-of-the-range S-Class saloon. An armoury of cameras and radar systems allows it to read the road and determine whether obstacles are approaching it from the front, the sides and the rear. 'Figuratively speaking, the new S-Class doesn't just have eyes at the front, it has 360-degree, all-round vision,' says Professor Thomas Weber, the company's R&D chief.

These systems are used to warn drivers if they are getting too close to obstacles, to keep the car in lane and, if necessary, to take action by automatically braking and steering the car, either to avoid an accident or mitigate its effects.

A stereo-imaging camera enables the car to see at night, not only blanking off parts of its high-beam to avoid dazzling oncoming cars but also identifying humans - and animals - at the roadside. When they're spotted, a live image of the road appears in the virtual instrument cluster, highlighting the random mammal in red.

On some models, the camera can also read the topography of the road ahead, the suspension tweaked pre-emptively to smooth bumps before they've arrived, while the car's radar allows it to advance automatically in traffic jams by controlling acceleration and braking.

All this is available now, and it will rapidly spread from today's handful of cars. And tomorrow? Volvo, long famous for its pioneering safety work, has stated that by 2020, no one will be killed in a new example of its cars, thanks to high-tech systems very similar to those of Mercedes. Toyota has announced a similar goal.

Volvo will release some of these recently demonstrated technologies in the next-generation XC90 SUV that it will launch in 2014: perhaps the most remarkable of them is a system allowing the car to autonomously park after its driver has stepped out. And it will return, driverless, when summoned back.

Like Google, Audi, VW and others, Volvo is one of a handful of companies licensed to run experimental driverless cars in certain public territories, and it would not be pursuing this technology unless it believed that eventually it will be mandated and marketable. No manufacturer can tell you when that might be, but there's certainly a chance that the first self-driving cars could emerge by 2020.

But if you're worried that the pleasure of driving will eventually be wrested from you, fear not - the option of driving yourself will remain, not least because it's vital to the brand character of so many cars.

An entirely self-driving Porsche, for instance, would be pointless. But until the wider law changes, we will not be enjoying robotically chauffeured journeys to work. Instead, we will enjoy ever-safer cars that can keep us on the straight and narrow, warn us when we deviate and take action to avoid accidents.

The Volkswagen XL1 can go 314 miles on a gallon of petrol

Accidents, it has to be said, that may well be part-created by the communication opportunities already present in cars, as we try to synch our Bluetooth phones, programme the sat-nav and in some cars, trawl the web, tweet and check in on Facebook.

Cars will soon be using Wi-Fi to communicate with one another and with roadside furniture to smooth your passage through traffic.

The advantages here include revealing the speed you should travel at to pass through the next set of traffic lights on green, for instance, or warning of accidents that you can't yet see.

What else is likely to change for the company car driver of 2020? Apart from safety, the overwhelming preoccupation for the world's automobile engineers is the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

There are two reasons for this. One is that there is a direct link between CO2 emissions and fuel consumption, and the second is that in many countries cars are taxed on the basis of their carbon emissions.

There's a further imperative in Europe in the form of a series of EU-mandated CO2 emissions targets that manufacturers must comply with if they are not to be fined. From last year, 65% of a manufacturer's range had to comply with a sales-weighted 130 g/km average, this rising to 100% by 2015.

And these rules have certainly produced results. In 2000, the UK new car average CO2 emissions output was 181 g/km, equating to 39.6 mpg. By 2012 it had fallen to 133 g/km, which is the equivalent of 54.5 mpg.

The car-makers squealed when these regulations were introduced, some claiming that they were near impossible to meet. But they have done it, and without any noticeable compromises in performance, safety, refinement or equipment levels. Indeed, in virtually every case all these aspects have been improved.

The car-makers have achieved this by improving engine efficiency, reducing mechanical friction, honing aerodynamics, upping transmission efficiency with more gears (eight-speed automatics are increasingly common and VW is working on a 10-speed transmission) and reducing weight.

But shaving weight from a car is a huge struggle, what with intensifying safety requirements and the endless demand for more equipment. And the near-horizon presents a still stiffer challenge: that 130 g/km target is dropping to a decidedly more severe 95 g/km by 2020.

This is a goal that will be much harder to hit, and will lead to significant changes in the way cars are propelled and the materials they're made from. For a clue, look no further than Volkswagen's extraordinary tube-like XL1.

This tandem two-seater resembles a motor show concept car but is rather more than that, VW not only engineering it for the road but building a run of 250 (admittedly expensive) examples for public sale.

VW has now been experimenting with highly economical, low-emission cars for over a decade, and the XL1 is the result of its research. This two-seater hybrid coupe manages an official - and astonishing - 314 mpg, and CO2 emissions of just 21 g/km.

And it's not slow either, being limited to a top speed of 100 mph and accelerating to 62 mph in 12.7 seconds. How does it do it? Through a mix of the most advanced automotive technologies available today.

Its structure makes extensive use of lightweight materials, such as carbonfibre, aluminium and magnesium, it's the most aerodynamic production car in the world, and it's a diesel hybrid. It might have a body as streamlined as a fish, tyres as thin as a motorbike's and a tail tapering like a tadpole's, but the engineering in this car is an arrow to the future.

Cars will be built from mixes of aluminium, steel and composites. They will get lighter, sleeker and more efficient, growing numbers of them offered as plug-in hybrids, because they achieve very low CO2 numbers.

Consider that Porsche has just launched a plug-in, petrol-hybrid version of its four-door Panamera, with emissions of 71 g/km and a 0-62 mph time of 5.5 seconds, and you begin to see why.

Of course, plug-ins like these are expensive, the mains-charged version of Toyota's relatively affordable Prius costing £8,000 more than the equivalent non-plug-in variety.

Pure electric cars will become slightly more common, especially with the arrival of more affordable examples such as Renault's stylish new Zoe. But they remain badly compromised by a range of around 100 miles at best, and although that will improve, electric models with the range of even a petrol car, never mind a diesel, remain distant.

So pure electric cars will not be effecting a silent takeover of Britain's highways. Nor will that other long-promised automotive revolution, the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, but by 2020 the first significant wave of these cars should have hit the road, and as more than experimental vehicles.

Fuel cells are the holy grail of clean, green energy for cars, their only by-product being water. But in classic chicken-and-egg style, the infrastructure to crack hydrogen from water will be worth investing in only if the demand is there, but until hydrogen refuelling stations are plentiful, fuel cell cars won't take off.

Nevertheless, there are promising signs. An assortment of energy companies and car manufacturers, including the Linde Group, Royal Dutch Shell, Total, Vattenfall Europe, Honda, General Motors, Mercedes, Toyota and Volkswagen, have committed to creating a network of hydrogen stations in Germany by the middle of this decade, and to produce several tens of thousands of cars to use it.

While the cost of making hydrogen fuel-cell powered cars remains high, the technology to produce a reliable, safe, user-friendly hydrogen car is already here. The future for fuel cell cars has flipped between the bright and the dim this past decade or so, but in the next few years the tipping point could be reached.

It will be a long time, then, before the car's predominant motive force ceases to be the internal combustion engine. But the hardware surrounding it promises to change significantly. Cars will be lighter, sleeker and made from a wider mix of materials.

Their petrol or diesel engine may well be hooked to electric motors whose battery charges from the mains. And their occupants will be protected with a barrage of interlinked cameras, radar systems and airbags.

But the biggest change will be the blurring of the car's role - no longer purely a transportation device, it will become a kind of mobile lounge-cum-study. Electronics will increasingly assist, control, navigate, entertain, communicate, pamper and protect.

Even if we can't buy a self-driving car by 2020, the moment will be very close.

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