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Eamonn Farrell/
easy does it

Self-driving cars won't be around anytime soon, but this will make traffic jams more bearable

Manufacturers like Audi are working on hybrid cars that take over during predictable moments like traffic jams, and they will start arriving this time next year.

SELF-DRIVING CARS may be exciting but they’re a long way off from making it to our roads.

While the likes of Google testing out its own self-driving cars has seen the most attention, the steps needed to reach a point where they become the norm are numerous and long.

That doesn’t mean the major car manufacturers aren’t preparing for this. While they’re working towards the same goals, the focus is on gradually introducing features that would help, rather than hinder.

One of those companies is Audi, which is preparing for the launch of the A8 next year. The new model will come with a number of autonomous features such as autopilot in traffic jams, staying in the correct lane while driving at a reasonable speed and auto-braking.

Audi’s Florian Gräf said the overall aim isn’t to replace the driver entirely, but create a system where it can take over during non-stressful or predictable moments. Traffic jams are a good place to begin since they’re slow, relatively predictable and allow enough time to cope with changes.

Our strategy is not to replace the driver completely [like Google]… our philosophy is to assist them as much as possible, to increase safety or to gain more comfort for you, to hand over if there are boring situations on hand like traffic jams.

Baby steps

While the concept of automated or autonomous driving has only really surfaced in the last year or two, companies have been working on it for much longer. Audi has spent the best part of a decade developing its own technology for situations like this and so too have its rivals.

Recently, it tested out its own autonomous racing car, the RS 7, at Hockenheim to show what its system is capable of.

Audi Deutschland / YouTube

While it’s possible to program a car to race around a track, there are significant differences between it and a car on the road.

A situation on the road has unknown factors to contend with, like drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, weather conditions and other unforeseen events that may happen at any time.

Also, there are legal issues to contend with as different countries have different regulations, not to mention ethical questions, like who’s responsible if a crash happens in autopilot.

None of this will be solved anytime soon, and the sheer number of unknown factors means only baby steps will be taken.

Audi has had more advantages than others. Late last year, it became the first company to be able to test its automated cars in California and recently got permission to do the same on part of the A9 motorway in Germany.

Building up trust

Those opportunities are essential for it and other manufacturers. While it must be safe before it goes out on the road, it needs real-world testing to help it progress.

For now, its functionality is pretty limited and it’s the driver who is ultimately responsible for what happens when they’re behind the wheel.

That’s probably a good thing since people will be reluctant to hand over the controls in the first place. Using it for mundane situations will help ease them into the idea and as its capabilities improve, they will be gradually added in.

DRIVER / YouTube

“At the moment, it’s the perfect solution for us and other manufacturers that the driver is still responsible for every situation the car is in”, says Gräf. “That’s why out of our research, we’re only bringing systems that have a definite field of action”.

So for traffic jams and braking assist, you cannot activate the system or see what it’s doing until the second you need it… it’s just going to move if you need it and you’re not able to react any more, the system is just there to defuse the problems you may have.

While traffic jams and motorways seem to be the starting point for it, being able to use such a system in rural areas or even built-up areas is still a few steps away. One such example of the obstacles faced would be traffic lights, something that a hybrid or autonomous car should be able to tell before it goes on the road.

There would be two ways to overcome this. The first would be to fit in sensors into all traffic lights so it would know, but the sheer number of lights worldwide makes this unfeasible.

The other more practical method would be to use camera systems to recognise which colour it’s on. The technology is improving but much like the entire concept, it has to be perfect before it can go on the road and this sums up the approach manufacturers have to take.

“For traffic lights, at the moment we’re able to hit eight out of 10. That may sound good but if you miss two red lights out of ten, that’s too much”, says Gräf.

“We are talking about a system that can influence the safety of the passengers of the road and that’s why we have to be 100% sure before bringing that stuff into production”.

Read: Think 3D Touch is good? How about a touchscreen that knows the angle of your finger >

Read: What’s next for the Nest Thermostat? Solving your immersion woes >

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