“The car reduces the effort I have to put into driving in traffic, and that improves my overall driving experience”

The future of driving

How soon will autonomous vehicles rule the road?


Text by Justin McCurry

As we embrace the age of artificial intelligence, the relationship between cars and their owners is undergoing arguably the biggest transformation since the invention of the internal combustion engine.

The rapid development of vehicles that can, to differing degrees, drive themselves has been greeted with excitement and trepidation in roughly equal measure.

Automakers such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Jaguar Land Rover, along with Nissan, Mazda and Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation, are already changing the way drivers interact with their vehicles — with the European firms increasingly expected to take the lead.

Representatives of these companies are at pains to distinguish their vision from that of their respective competitors, but they are united in the belief that, despite the considerable media hype, change will be incremental as they find ways for autonomous cars to co-exist comfortably with their human passengers — and with each other.

The road to full autonomy comes in stages, starting with Industry Level 0 where there is no automation. Level 1 sees some driver-assistance features, and partial automation at Level 2. Level 3 brings conditional autonomy, where drivers can take their eyes off the road for extended periods of time, and Level 4, high automation within certain geographical areas. Attaining Level 5, or complete automation, could bring to the road cars such as Volkswagen’s concept sedan, I.D. Vizzion, which has no steering wheel or pedals.

Another German car manufacturer, Mercedes-Benz, has been working for some time on projects to develop Level 3 vehicles, as well as technology for Level 4 and Level 5, says Bernhard Weidemann, a spokesman for autonomous driving at the firm’s headquarters in Stuttgart.

“We are now getting close to being able to introduce appropriate systems in this area,” he notes.

At present, the highest legal and technically viable option available in any market across the globe is Level 2, in which drivers can get a lot of support from the car. But, Weidemann added, they need to keep their eyes on the road and remain wholly responsible for their vehicle.

Mercedes-Benz, like others, is anticipating legal changes in major markets such as Japan, Europe and the US that will see Level 4 cars with high automation reach consumers in 2020, with fully automated versions to follow by the middle of the decade.

Nissan has been particularly visible in the autonomous driving realm. In 2016, it became the first Japanese automaker to introduce a combination of steering, accelerating and braking that can be operated in full automatic mode in its Serena Minivan.

“The company’s ProPILOT technology understands road and traffic situations and executes precise steering, enabling the vehicle to perform naturally,” says Nick Maxfield of Nissan’s global communications division.

Since 2016, ProPILOT has been brought to other Nissan vehicles, including the Qashqai in Europe, the X-Trail in Japan and the latest generation of the LEAF electric vehicle — meaning Nissan has more semi-autonomous vehicles on the road than any other mass-market carmaker.

Mazda, meanwhile, is currently developing autonomous technologies in line with their human-centred Mazda Co-Pilot concept that, as the name suggests, will retain a key role for the driver, according to Hideki Taira, a manager in the corporate communications division.

“Autonomous driving technology is not something that will suddenly appear,” says Taira. “There will be step-by-step improvements in the technologies. Improving interaction between drivers and their cars is the approach that Mazda is taking.”

The firm aims to begin testing the technology in 2020 and to make it standard in all its models by 2025.

But do motorists really want to hand over control to their vehicles? A recent poll of key European markets, conducted on Mazda’s behalf by Ipsos Mori, reveals that only 29% would embrace fully autonomous vehicles, while 71% of respondents said they would like to retain control of their cars as a driver.

Industry experts believe the answer lies in offering them a choice.

“At least in the short- to mid-term, we expect that cars will be operable in self-driving and manual driving modes,” says Maxfield of Nissan.

The BMW Group slogan, Sheer Driving Pleasure, will apply as much to its automated vehicles as to its existing range of luxury cars, says Peter Kronschnabl, President and CEO of BMW GROUP Japan.

“Even if you enjoy driving as much as I do, there are still times when it may be preferable to let the car take over,” he adds. “For example, when I’m in a traffic jam, I turn on the adaptive cruise control and the steering and lane-keeping assist functions. The car reduces the effort I have to put into driving in traffic, and that improves my overall driving experience.”

The advances are not confined to passenger vehicles. Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus, a subsidiary of Daimler AG, is taking part in a Japanese government-sponsored initiative to encourage truck platooning, in which fleets of interconnected trucks travel in close formation and at a constant speed. This will reduce the potential for accidents and traffic jams, while improving fuel efficiency.

“Platooning is just one of many ways that we are leveraging technology to make commercial vehicle operation smarter, safer and more efficient for drivers and fleet owners,” a spokesperson for Mitsubishi Fuso says.

And this brings us to the question on the lips of many drivers contemplating a future where they will be taking a back seat — perhaps literally — to an on-board computer: Will autonomous driving be safe?

Automakers all agree that safety must come first.

While some motorists are sceptical about a car’s ability to anticipate and react to the myriad contingencies a human faces on even the shortest journey, manufacturers are confident about their vehicles’ ability to cope with real traffic conditions, regardless of which countries’ roads they appear on.

“Autonomous vehicles relieve the driver’s workload in monotonous driving situations or during difficult, complex manoeuvres,” says Weidemann of Mercedes-Benz.

One thing drivers won’t need to worry about is the comfort and appearance of their autonomous vehicles.

Jaguar Land Rover — which tested its first driverless car in the UK late last year — is guarded about its specific plans for its autonomous vehicles, but promises it will offer the same aesthetic experience as its conventional luxury cars.

“It isn’t a question of special features that differentiate our cars from our competitors’,” says Keiichi Wakabayashi, director of marketing and PR for Jaguar Land Rover Japan. “It is about how the car feels — what you see, touch and hear when you drive.” 

“Our aim is to develop autonomous vehicles that react faster and more reliably in traffic than human drivers”