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Cars that drive themselves

Kushan Mitra | Print Edition: Apr 1, 2012

A Mercedes advertisement a few years ago said its then top-of-the-line S-Class model had more computing power than the Apollo missions to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s. By the same logic, today's mobile phones have more processing power than all the computers used for the lunar missions put together. It is, indeed, remarkable that all the three astronauts who made the first moon landing in July 1969 had to guide them was the Apollo Guidance Computer, which ran at a (now) measly 2.048 megahertz.

What you see or experience while riding a high-end German sedan nowadays is an incredible amount of electronics and technology. Any auto manufacturer will tell you that the most complicated component of a car today is not any piece of forged or machined metal, but the wiring harness that connects everything.

On a BMW X3 sports utility I recently drove, the car's central command unit synced with my phone and not only read my phonebook, but also displayed the image of the person - stored in the phone - who had called me. This feature is not specific to a BMW: it is standard in all luxury vehicle brands.

What is fascinating is not just the connectivity technology coming down the value chain. The German companies are making their vehicles even more advanced, or outlandish, if you prefer. Mercedes-Benz recently announced that its new A-Class model, which has yet to reach India, will be fully integrated with Apple's new Siri voice command technology.

No doubt, voice command is nothing new in cars. The new Mahindra Xylo also has one. But Siri goes much further. I have not, for instance, ever seen Facebook or Twitter updates being brought to a car's screen with a voice command, as Siri is said to do.

Google is working on something even more fascinating. It is taking cruise control to another level by developing a 'driverless' car. This is an outcome of projects it carried out for the United States Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2004/05 and 2007.

Such cars will rely on features such as the maps loaded on them, the video cameras installed within and without, a Light Detecting and Ranging (LIDAR) system on top, radar systems in the front and back, and super accurate position sensors to move all by themselves. They have already moved thousands of kilometres without a human hand at the wheel, and hundreds of thousands with minimal human intervention. Google has succeeded in lobbying the state of Nevada, US, to allow driverless cars on public roads.

Although Google itself will not commercially exploit this technology, it does plan to sell it - as well as the data created around it - to automotive companies. Indeed, driverless cars have the potential to be less accident-prone and more fuelefficient than those driven by humans. Given the rash of highspeed accidents, frequently due to drunken driving, in Indian cities, road safety experts - rather than call computer-controlled cars an abomination - should welcome them.

At the speed with which technology is developing today, a driverless car on public roads may soon no longer be a futuristic fantasy from a 1950s movie.

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