Audi's Watershed

Drivers are in denial. Cars will be better without them. It is a hundred and twenty years since horses were gradually consigned to history. The Light Brigade had been overwhelmed at Balaclava by Russian artillery, Cavalrymen were distraught. Horsey people knew things were never going to be the same again. Technology had changed, warfare had changed, everything had changed.

 Audi RS7 Concept at Hockenheim

Audi RS7 Concept at Hockenheim

Last week was another watershed. Audi’s astonishing performance at Hockenheim with an empty car made driving history. The last bastion of skill at the wheel collapsed. Track driving could be done by an automaton. Car fanatics, like the gallant 600, need to contemplate change. One day controlling cars with people will be a leisure pursuit, like fox-hunting or show-jumping. There will be track days for show-offs, vintage and classic clubs will flourish, rather like steam buffs who now volunteer to run old railways. But town-to-town journeys, in particular the wearisome ones on motorways, will be automated and controlled. The inventive (although ultimately unsuccessful) Sir Clive Sinclair once once said, “Driving along motorways without electronic controls will be seen, in years to come, as savage and dangerous.” The Adam Smith Institute reported, “Fighter aircraft perform in ways inconceivable if a human brain had to regulate them. Cars under electronic control could travel at 100 miles per hour, closer together in safety.”

 Passengers-only cars.

Passengers-only cars.

Google’s driverless cars have now done over a million kilometres. Their only accidents have been when humans took over the controls and the latest prototypes don’t have steering wheels or pedals. Steve Mahan of Morgan Hill California rides in a self-driving Toyota Prius. “Ninety-five percent of my vision is gone, I'm well past legally blind”. He goes to a drive-through restaurant, a dry cleaning shop and back home.

Driverless-ness is not going to happen just yet but all the ingredients are in place. It will be as regular as aircraft landing automatically in fog, which they have been doing for years. We park without steering. We have sat-nav and sensors regulating cruise control and changing lanes. Integrated circuits and microprocessors link functions to electronic engine controls, apply the brakes, then speed up. Traction control prevents wheelspin and, on Audi’s RS7 at Hockenheim corrected GPS signals came via WiFi and high-frequency radio. Infrared 3D cameras watched the track and a computer compared what they “saw” against stored data. Ultrasonic sensors steered the car to centimetre accuracy and the twin-turbo 4.0 V8 lapped in 1m57s.

 Working prototypes have proved themselves.

Working prototypes have proved themselves.

Technology making drivers redundant is not new. It has been under development for years. Artillery started at Crécy (1346) so it was around five centuries before it saw off the gallant 600 at Balaclava. ABS was a 1980s milestone, proving that technology could do something better than a driver. Remember cadence braking? I thought that was the answer on snow and ice until I tried ABS and was wholly converted when I used it in an emergency. I saw demonstrations of driverless control, interactive trains of cars on motorway-style test tracks, guidance-by-wire and on 30 April 1989 wrote in The Sunday Times: “An automatic pilot for cars is practical. Prometheus, a pan European research and development programme now in its third year, looks like getting into the driving seat by the end of the Century.”

 So, maybe we are 15 years late, and I am not going to say I told you so. But all that's necessary now is to follow legislation in Nevada, Florida, California and Michigan and enable it.