They might be a motoring enthusiast’s worst nightmare, but self-driving cars are on their way and will arrive sooner than we imagine, according to the chairman of the Ford Motor Company.
Bill Ford, great-grandson of Henry Ford, told delegates at the recent Mobile World Conference in Barcelona that autopilot technology for cars will arrive in stages over the next decade or so. He predicted that a car capable of driving unassisted from A to B, before dropping you off and scurrying away to park itself, could reach our roads as soon as 2025.
Some of the building blocks are already on options lists of existing cars, including systems that brake automatically to avoid accidents or keep dozy sales reps from drifting across lanes. The next five to seven years will see improved versions of today’s smartest systems, like adaptive cruise control, parking assistance and automatic braking.
New car-to-car warning technology will also emerge, Ford said. When a car triggers a safety measure, or detects a panicking driver, it will beam out an instant alert to other vehicles. They will prime their own brakes, or even enforce a slowdown, to avoid the spectre of a pileup.
Over the same period, Ford predicted increased membership of car clubs and sharing schemes, eroding pride in car ownership and readying the public for a future with a fuzzy boundary between public and private transport.
As soon as 2017 we may see the introduction of platooning, Ford said, where cars travel one behind the other in close formation, gathered together into a train by computers and sensors.
Swedish car maker Volvo recently completed the first tests in its platooning project, called SATRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment). The idea is that professionally driven leader vehicles will plough up and down motorways at regular intervals, and that cars will be able to play electronic follow-the-leader behind them. After joining a convoy at the back, drivers will be able to release the controls and relax.
Any driver will be able to leave the formation at any time – the next car in line will simply close up the gap. Volvo’s recent tests were conducted at 56mph with just a 20ft space between cars.
Platooning should be a real win-win. Tired drivers can take a break without stopping, cars use less fuel as they slice through the air together, and the compact train makes better use of crowded road space.
One thing they won’t be, though, is any fun. If you love driving, you’d better enjoy it while you can.