Autos Entering the Autonomous Era

By Fink Densford
BU News Service

A future of self-driving cars is becoming less of a fantasy and more of an inevitability.

Both Audi and Mercedes Benz presented cars that were able to drive themselves to the center stage at CES. Mercedes presented the F015 Luxury In Motion, an autonomous concept specifically for CES, with a hopeful statement of a 2030 release.

Photo Gallery: The Cars of CES

Audi modified an existing A7 and sent it on a journey from Palo Alto to Las Vegas, arriving in time for the opening of CES without a driver managing the journey.

While the Mercedes F015 concept was more a research project than a commercial product, Audi has stated that they will be releasing a semi-autonomous A8 by 2016.

The rush for driverless cars isn’t new, however – Google revealed it’s own version last year, and has continued development on a working prototype.

Google’s self-driving car. Image courtesy of Google.

But Google’s vision for a driverless car is vastly different than what Mercedes Benz envisions. The Google self-driving car is cute, with lights and grill giving it a pseudo-face – and inside is limited to two seats, no controls and a top speed of 25 mph. The F015, by stark contrast, is a 17-foot long, low-slung luxury sedan with a glossy silver exterior and arrays of lights that give it more of a UFO look than something you’d normally see on the street.

Dieter Zetsche, head of Mercedes Benz referred to the F015 as more of a return to the age of the passenger, not the driver, and likened the car to a luxury carriage. And while Mercedes has stated that the autonomous systems will shift the focus away from drivers and onto passengers, the F015 still comes with a wheel and pedals, so manual control is still possible, something the Google self-driving car does not have.

Mercedes Benz F015 Luxury In Motion concept car, revealed at CES 2015. Photo by Pankaj Khadka/BU News Service

At Audi, all attention was on “Jack”, the autonomous A7 that drove itself on a 550-mile journey from Northern California to Las Vegas. Audi claims the system, which it calls “Piloted Driving”, is production ready, and will be seen in their new A8.

The A7 on display, dubbed “Prologue” was summoned to the stage by an Audi-customized smart watch. Other than its ability to lock and unlock the car, however, no more information was revealed about the watch.

The Audi “Prologue”, based on an existing A7, presented at CES 2015. Photo by Pankaj Khadka/BU News Service

Previous autonomous experiments at Audi have included an RS7 that drove itself at high speeds around the Hockenheim ring, a motor-racing circuit in Germany. During its self-piloted trip around the track, the car was able to reach speeds of nearly 150 mph without a human behind the wheel.

Other car companies aren’t backing away from the idea either. At a press conference on Tuesday, Ford’s CTO Raj Nair said “there absolutely will be a Ford autonomous vehicle in the future,” but the company did not have any such vehicles on show at CES.

And features of autonomous driving is already in cars in many ways. Lane departure control, adaptive cruise control and automatic parallel parking can be found in many models from a wealth of different manufacturers. While these features aren’t entirely autonomous, they still allow the sensors and radar on the car to take over if the human behind the wheel can’t, or doesn’t want to, keep up.

So far, only three states, Nevada, California and Florida, as well as Washington D.C., have passed laws allowing autonomous cars on the road. As the technology improves, more states are likely to join the trend, but the reality of taking a nap on the way to work is still at least a few years away.

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