Acting just like a plane on auto-pilot, it is designed to take over from humans in slow-moving heavy traffic or on familiar routes, such as the school run. The iPad is on the dashboard and by tapping on a prompt, the driver can make the car’s onboard computer take the wheel.
Professor Paul Newman from Oxford University is a firm advocate of the technology. “I absolutely believe that having machines in control of cars can make them safer, otherwise there won’t be a product,” he maintains.
“To say that machines won’t be driving us in the future is much harder to believe and say we are condemned to a future of congestion time wasting and pollution and dangerous driving. It’s very hard to distract a computer”.
Scientists adapted a Nissan Leaf electric car, adding small cameras. A laser embedded in the front bumper scans the direction of travel 13 times a second to check for obstacles like other vehicles, pedestrians or cyclists. Any obstacle will activate the brakes. But insurance is still an issue.
Motoring expert Mike Rutherford predicts problems with getting the proper cover for such cars: “It’s difficult enough to get cars insured when you’re a driver with a decent record and you have no history of crashes or endorsements. Imagine contacting a comparison website and trying to explain that you don’t actually want to drive it, you just want to ride as a passenger in it and the car drives itself.”
Because insurers still need some convincing, RobotCar is yet to undergo road testing, but optimistic researchers still hope to see the technology in cars within 15 years.