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Driverless Cars – the Future of Road Travel?

Over the past few years, we've seen science-fiction slowly become science-fact. Mobile phones, voice-recognition, even the iPad - all of these began life on the silver screen in a little-known TV show called Star Trek. So what about the self-driving car? Featured in films such as Minority Report and I, Robot, autonomous vehicles have been the dream of sci-fi geeks for many years. Although rocket-boots and time-machines are still a long way off, it seems that the self-driving car is edging closer to reality.

The Google Self-Driving Toyota Prius uses a combination of radar, video cameras and lasers to navigate roads without any need for a human behind the wheel. Here are some of its most interesting features:

  • This is the first concept vehicle able to merge with regular traffic, using a complex array of sensors.
  • Audible alerts provide information to the driver, such as "approaching a crosswalk".
  • Speed limits are stored to the on-board system for use along regular routes.
  • Different 'driving personalities' can be used, including cautious (where the car is more likely to yield to other drivers) and aggressive (where the car becomes a bit more pushy).

Of course, it's no surprise that Google have been the company to develop this car - after all, it uses data from Google Street View in order to plot a course to its destination.

EN-V Pride

Photo: © General Motors

Other Concepts

Of course, Google aren't the only ones who want to develop this amazing new technology. Over the years, there have been a number of attempts to design and build autonomous vehicles, but here are some of the most recent:

  • General Motors EN-V - Currently in development, this collaboration between General Motors and Segway sports an incredibly unique design. Originally unveiled in 2010, a second concept has been announced which promises to add a variety of new features.
  • Audi TTS - A heavily modified version of the Audi TTS was set to attempt a driverless drive along Pikes Peak. Despite promising test footage, the project was 'put on hold' after a helicopter crash during filming.

The Future of Driving?

Photo: © General Motors

Although the Google Prius is still very much a concept vehicle, it's difficult not to get excited. The prospect of these autonomous cars becoming mass-manufactured is certainly becoming more and more likely. Although Google have no immediate plans to commercialize their system, General Motors have announced that its EN-V will go on sale within this decade. If this actually happens, it will no-doubt revolutionize the driving experience. In anticipation of this, a number of States across the USA have already begun to plan ahead:

  • Nevada was the first state to officially recognize the potential of driverless cars, passing a law in 2011 which allowed them to operate legally on public roads.
  • California recently passed similar legislation that allows "autonomous vehicles" to be tested and operated - California Senator Alan Lowenthal having test-driven the technology himself.

How soon this technology becomes readily available is still merely speculation. But if General Motors are to be believed, you could be letting your car drive you to work in just the next few years.