Guessing where cars are heading has preoccupied generations. Every motor show I remember had concept cars. Some of General Motors’ predictions from the 1938 Buick Y-Job (above) to the 1951 Le Sabre were more than flights of fancy. HG Wells predicted aircraft, tanks and texting yet he was hazy about cars. He imagined motorways like railways connecting cities, decanting people on to bicycles in town. Some 30 years ago Prometheus sent me driverless on test tracks to show that ingredients for autonomous controls were already here. Now the Royal College of Art’s Intelligent Mobility Design Centre and the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design is presenting Driverless Futures, Utopia or Dystopia? At the London Transport Museum
PROMETHEUS 1 Auto-pilot in the driving seat. SUNDAY TIMES: 30 April 1989.
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. "Driving along motorways without electronic controls will be seen, in years to come, as savage and dangerous," according to Sir Clive Sinclair in a report on traffic published last week by the Adam Smith Institute.
"Fighter aircraft perform in ways which would be inconceivable if a human brain had to regulate them. Cars under electronic control could travel at 100 mph, closer together and in great safety. I envisage motorways where the control of the vehicles is taken over by the road," says the inventive Sir Clive.
One of the pioneers of Prometheus (PROgramme for a European Traffic with Highest Efficiency and Unprecedented Safety, not a catchy title), Dr Ferdinand Panik of Daimler‑Benz agrees. "Present‑day traffic with individual elements will evolve into an integral system of co‑operating partners."
He regards the electronic revolution in cars as analogous to typewriters. "Twenty years ago, as a purely mechanical product, the typewriter had reached a very advanced state of development. Everyone was satisfied with it. Yet within a short time, computers and communication systems brought about a change from independent typewriters to interlinked word‑processors, and conquered the market."
Jerome Rivard, former chief of electronics at Ford, now Vice President of Bendix Electronics in the United States believes we are entering the final phase of handing over control of the car
to electronics. "Phase 1 was from the mid‑1960s to the late 1970s, when we saw the solid‑state radio, electronic ignition, and digital clocks. Phase 2 brought integrated circuits and microprocessors, which started to link components together. This included electronic engine controls, instruments, and anti‑lock brakes, now familiar to many drivers. Phase 3 began in the mid-1980s, which will see the total integration of vehicle electrical and electronic systems."
What this means is that with developments such as anti‑lock brakes, and its corollary, electronic traction control for preventing loss of grip through wheelspin coming into use, the stage is set for electronics to take the wheel. "We shall drive on to motorways, but once we are there, control of the vehicle will be taken over by the road," says Sir Clive.
Rivard puts it another way, "The skills required in handling an automobile are, in some cases, beyond the capacity of the average driver. The advances in steering, braking, and suspension technology during Phase 3 will allow him to employ the full performance potential of the vehicle even in exceptional situations like avoiding accidents."
The immediate safety‑related task of the new systems will be to create an electronic field round the car with ultrasonic, radar, or infrared beams, to measure the distances and speeds to other vehicles. Approaching a parked lorry at night or in fog, the driver will be alerted to the danger of collision. Before the invention of anti‑lock brakes (ABS) he would have put the brakes on, or swerved by himself. Now the car can do the job better than the most skilled driver, and on the Sinclair motorway, will apply its own brakes.
The same applies to unwise overtaking. The on‑board computers calculate the speed of the lorry ahead, the speed of the car overtaking, decide there is danger of an accident and over‑rules the driver's decision to pull out. Research chiefs such as Professor Dr Ing. Ulrich Seiffert of VW see measures of this sort as a solution to the problem of congestion on motorways.
"With electronic controls regulating the cars, you could double or treble the capacity of a motorway," he told me during a meeting at this year's Geneva Motor Show. "And automatic
traffic will also be more fuel‑efficient, and so less polluting."
At the inception of Prometheus in 1986, Professor Werner Breitschwerdt, Chairman of the Daimler‑Benz board of management defined its target as cutting road traffic casualties by half before the year 2000. At a meeting in Munich earlier this year by the participating companies, which include most of Europe's principal car manufacturers (Jaguar, Rolls‑Royce, Renault, Peugeot‑Citroën, Fiat, Volvo, Saab‑Scania, VW, BMW, Volkswagen‑Audi, and Daimler‑Benz), the research and development phase of the programme was officially inaugurated.
"It was a meeting to provide the project's board of management with a progress report," according to Daimler‑Benz, the prime mover and still the principal co‑ordinator of
Prometheus. "The first year, 1987, was taken up with defining the programme, in 1988 the participating companies were discussing how to do it, and research proper starts this year."
PROMETHEUS 2: Turin Jaguars, Vision of the future SUNDAY TIMES: 30 September 1991.
A Jaguar that "sees" at night and through fog was shown to an international vehicle industry conference in Turin on Friday. It has vision-enhancing equipment similar to that used by troops in the Gulf war, to warn drivers they are approaching an obstacle or driving too close to the car in front.
An infra-red television camera relays pictures to a small screen on the demonstration Jaguar, but a production model would project them on to the windscreen in front of the driver. A second generation version of the device reduces engine power and applies the brakes if the driver ignores its warnings.
Jaguar showed three cars to European motor industry heads meeting in Turin to review progress on Prometheus, a joint initiative to apply high technology solutions to the problems of vehicle pollution and traffic congestion in Europe. At the close of the three-day conference Professor Doctor Hartmut Weule, board member for research at Mercedes-Benz, called for a European conference to agree on field trials and decide standards. Presentations were made to European transport ministries to agree on traffic regulations that may need to be changed to accommodate the new technology.
The vogue for finding a title to fit an acronym led in 1986 to the PROgramme for European Traffic with Highest Efficiency and Unprecedented Safety (PROMETHEUS). A joint research enterprise by the European motor and electronics industries, it aims to develop systems and submit standards for safety and traffic management.
The undertaking is not entirely altruistic. Once the guidelines are in place, manufacturers will be able to develop products for the market in competition with one another. Those who had played an active part in Prometheus would, of course, have a head start.
Major European car manufacturers are co-operating in the project and the Department of Trade and Industry is providing some of the money.
The Turin Jaguars were equipped with systems intended for making the best use of roads. There is no longer much support for large-scale roadbuilding programmes in Europe, so the best way to make the most of what is available is to develop technology enabling us to crowd more cars into the existing space.
A motorway could safely be filled with a moving carpet of cars virtually bumper-to-bumper if drivers in all three lanes travelled at the same speed. The capacity of the road would be increased always supposing nobody slowed down or stopped and visibility remained good at all times.
Prometheus will come as close as it dares to the "rolling road" concept, which may make driving less entertaining but will provide welcome contributions to safety. The Jaguars at Turin showed that the technology to enable close-proximity driving is now in place, and the first product applications could be on the market as early as 1995.
There are passive systems which detect accident situations and warn the driver. They could flash road signals on to the windscreens warning the driver of pedestrians, a school, or other hazards. Roadside beacons conforming to a Prometheus standard could alert an on-board displays. Another system can sense when a car is travelling too close or the road is slippery, and let the driver know so that he can take action.
A second demonstration Jaguar had a computerised vision system, developed in conjunction with Lucas (which was working on systems of this sort 20 years ago) that converts the road scene into a computerised map, identifying signs, white lines, and highlighting the important ones for the driver.
The systems most likely to be the first on the market are active ones, which improve traffic organisation by taking over some aspects of driving from a person at the wheel. Cruise control and anti-lock brakes (ABS) are examples of active facilities that have proved outstandingly successful. ABS keeps a car from locking its brakes in an emergency and slows it without losing steering control.
One of the Turin demonstration Jaguars combines the two, adding a radar system enabling it constantly to maintain a safe distance from the car ahead, even in congested traffic.
Prometheus's brief also covers on-board navigation. This will transform the way we travel by car. The fuel savings, to say nothing of the safety aspects and reduction in driver fatigue from never taking a wrong turning, could be one of its positive effects.
City-wide systems are under development, which will guide drivers to vacant parking-spaces, warn them of congestion and even tell them what hotels have vacancies.