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Question: What will the car of the future look like?

Geoff Wardle: If you look at the history of the automobile, there’ve never really been any radical changes.  I don’t see any radical changes, or step changes in the near future, at least.  I think perhaps we will see some bigger changes than in the past. 

I believe that if we are going to continue to use automobiles in any big way, we have to be much more selective as end users in making sure we use the right vehicle for the right job; the right tool for the right job, the right car for the right journey.  And you mentioned a little earlier how 85 percent to 87 percent of people still use the car for their commuting rather than other means of transportation so the reality is that most of those car journeys are done alone.  So, why do we haul around ourselves in a vehicle that is 20 or 30 times our own weight because it’s got three, four, five, six, or seven sometimes empty seats around us?  Those vehicles are fine when they are used to carry a lot of people.  So I think one of the changes that I believe we need to see is a much greater opportunity for people to use, whether it’s buying or sharing vehicles specifically for commuting.  They will be safe, they will be much more energy efficient, use up less space, and then you can make a better case for using cars. 

So I think the architecture of vehicles, we’ll start to see much smaller vehicles.  I think that one of the big issues of vehicle design too is the crash avoidance technology that we’re beginning to see being introduced. 

Personally, my own opinion is that if the automobile is to remain a major player in personal mobility, then I think autonomous vehicles are going to be a real advantage.  Some people think that this is crazy and this is not possible.  I, and quite a few other people, think that this is not crazy and there are some really good reasons why we should go that way.  We’re kind of on the way now.  How will this affect the ways cars look?  As I’ve said, we’re going to see cars that – I hope to see more cars on the road that are much smaller.  We’ve seen some examples at recent auto shows, Volkswagen, and some of the Japanese companies have shown much smaller vehicles.  There is still a lot of reticence amongst car users that they are not as safe as driving around in a big car.  That needn’t be the case.  Small cars can be engineered to be extremely safe.  They still have to pass all the same crash regulations that a big car does.  So a lot of it is about perceptions. 

At the same time, if cars can be engineered to drive themselves reliably without crashing into each other, then you can make the cars a lot lighter still because you don’t have to engineer them to be light tanks. 

Question: How far away are we from cars that can essentially drive themselves?

Geoff Wardle: I think, given the right circumstances, we could see vehicles that are able to drive by themselves within a decade.  But that’s under ideal circumstances.  The main barrier that people flag up with autonomous driving is; Yes, but how do you mix cars that can drive themselves with older cars that can’t drive themselves?  And so actually introducing these autonomous cars into the Legacy fleet is a challenge, but I think it is quite possible. 

Honestly, I think it’s probably 20 or 30 years away before we see a car landscape where all cars are driving themselves.  But I often think; what would it be like if we transported ourselves 100 years into the future, or imagine our great-great-grandchildren, and they say, “Granddad.  Is it true that in 2010 people were allowed to drive their own cars around?”  “Yep.  That’s absolutely true.”  And they say, “Well, that’s crazy.  Didn’t people crash into each other and make mistakes?”  “Yes, they did, and 40,000 people a year died every year on American roads because they crashed into each other.  And goodness knows how many people got injured.”  “Wow.  So, how was that allowed to last for so long?”  I think if you look at that perspective, you can see that it becomes an inevitability.  But I would say 20 or 30 years before it become ubiquitous. 

But I think we see the beginnings of it now.  There are a lot of vehicles now which have adaptive speed control on their cruise control; adaptive cruise control.  If the car gets too close to the one in front, the brakes automatically come on.  Most people who drive very powerful sports cars have subliminal systems built into the car, which applies the brakes a little bit discreetly, or stops the wheels spinning if the driver is too enthusiastic or too aggressive.  We have devices that warn you if you try to change lanes when there’s somebody still in your blind spot, and we also have now in some cars being introduced that if the car feels that you have not seen a pedestrian step out in front of you, or it’s getting too close to a stationary object, it will slam on the brakes before the driver even reacts. 

So you can imagine these kids of technologies becoming more and more ubiquitous in the cars so that the car kind of in the end surreptitiously takes over from the driver, then you can see the driver beginning to take less and less interest in the driving.  And that to me is the way we introduce them into the Legacy fleet.  

Recorded on February 4, 2010

More from the Big Idea for Friday, June 25 2010

 

Cars That Drive Themselves

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