The relationships we have with our cars is going to change significantly in coming years. It has already been changing for a while, but it’s about to alter a lot more dramatically.
Up until now, cars have existed in isolation from one another and the world around them. Our interactions with them have been deliberate and specific. You go to your car, unlock it with a key, drive it to your destination (following traffic light instructions and avoiding other cars going about their own business), find a parking space, lock it and walk away. When it needs fuel, oil, water or servicing, a warning light or message will seek your attention, and you arrange to meet its needs.
Yet every single concept in the above paragraph will change profoundly – indeed, some of it is already changing – and it could mean the end of driving as we know it today.
In 10-15 years’ time, that paragraph will probably read more like this: Your car comes to you, it unlocks automatically as it recognises you, it drives you to your destination (seamlessly integrating with other traffic and interacting with a traffic network which calculates how to move each vehicle on its way most efficiently), you step out of the car and it scurries off to park elsewhere. If it needs fuel, oil, water or servicing, it can make its own arrangements and take itself off to the dealer.
Now to be fair, that second paragraph basically sounds like catching a taxi. But the key difference is that there is no driver, and the car is connected both to you and the world around it (through what is known as the Internet of Things). The car itself may be your own, or it may be a communal vehicle owned by a car-sharing organisation. Connected cars will be networked to each other, as well as to a local traffic management system, and they will work together to ensure everyone gets where they are going as efficiently as possible.
It sounds quite Orwellian, and constant streaming of your identity and location will instantly raise hackles among privacy enthusiasts. However, the acceptance of a connected world in other aspects of our lives suggests that most people don’t have a huge problem with sharing their information on public networks.
Autonomous cars vs. connected cars
We have talked previously about autonomous cars, which describes the car driving you automatically with no human input from you or any control centre. But most of the trials that are currently taking place around the world still have the car operating in isolation from everything else around it. The car still has to work out what other cars are doing based on what it observes, just like we do when we are driving.
Connected cars are able to communicate their movements to one another, so they work together to get to their destinations more efficiently. Connected car technology doesn’t only apply to autonomous cars, as various aspects of it can be used to assist a real driver in today’s world. For example, if all the cars in a city are connected to the traffic light system, the lights can operate in a more efficient manner to minimise the time each car spends stopped at red lights unnecessarily.
Connected autonomous cars
The biggest benefits of cars being connected to each other and their surroundings will be when they are driving themselves, as it will take the technology several steps further. Networked autonomous vehicles will be able to travel much closer together because each car knows what the other cars are doing as they are doing it, rather than waiting to observe and then react.
For example, let’s say a column of six cars is driving along a road and the car in front hits its brakes hard. In our current world, the driver of the second car observes the first car braking and then hits its brakes. The driver of the third car observes the second car, and so on. The car at the back inevitably hits its brakes significantly later than the first car. This is how large nose-to-tail accidents occur on motorways. In a connected world, as the first car car hits its brakes, it is also signalling all the cars behind, which all hit their brakes simultaneously. This significantly reduces the chance of an accident occurring.
So far more cars will be able to travel along existing road networks, with smaller gaps in front, behind and either side of each car. And with the network of connected cars all co-operating in harmony, each car will be able to move in and out of traffic far more efficiently, which means fewer traffic jams and less wasted fuel.