Washington: Advancing towards cars that drive on their own, Volvo Car Corp. has tested its new S60 model, which has the first in-car system that can sense an imminent collision with pedestrians and brake automatically if the driver doesn`t.
The system is the latest in a line of developments made possible by sophisticated sensors based on cameras, radar and lasers.
The sensors already provide drivers with adaptive cruise control, which alters a car`s speed to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front, as well as technology such as semi-autonomous parking systems.
Jonas Ekmark, a researcher at Volvo headquarters near Gothenburg, Sweden, has said that we are entering an era in which vehicles will also gather real-time information about the weather and highway hazards, using this to improve fuel efficiency and make life less stressful for the driver and safer for all road users.
"Our long-term goal is the collision-free traffic system," the Washington Post quoted Ekmark as saying.
Alan Taub, vice president for research and development at General Motors, expects to see semi-autonomous vehicles on the road by 2015.
They will need a driver to handle busy city streets and negotiate complex intersections, but once on the highway they will be able to steer, accelerate and avoid collisions unaided.
A few years later, he predicts, drivers will be able to take their hands off the wheel completely.
"I see the potential for launching fully autonomous vehicles by 2020,” he said.
While Japan is leading the way in autonomous vehicles, collaboration between seven European manufacturers and universities are developing a system that would allow up to eight cars a little more than a yard apart driving in convoy, controlled by a lead vehicle operated by a professional driver.
Drivers will be able to work, read, watch films or even sleep while their cars are driven for them.
What fully autonomous vehicles might be like is hinted at by an experimental car built by a GM-backed team of engineering students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Their ‘Boss’ car earned a 2 million dollar prize in 2007 by outperforming 10 other autonomous vehicles in a simulated urban environment.
The vehicle executed complex manoeuvres such as merging into flowing traffic, passing, parking and negotiating intersections, while interacting with other autonomous vehicles and 30 human-driven ones.
Taub has predicted that by about 2020, vehicles like Boss will start to appear on public roads; drivers will be able to disengage totally and hand control over to the car, reports New Scientist.