Autonomous concept cars from some of the world’s leading automotive manufacturers have been introduced at the International CES show in Las Vegas, heralding a future change and societal shift in the role cars serve as a form of transport.
Mercedes Benz debuted its 'futuristic concept' car, the F 015 Luxury In Motion saloon. The sleek silver shell – instantly defined as being “like a bar of soap designed by the Terminator” on Twitter – has rotating front seats so the driver and front passenger can fully turn their chairs and socialise with others in the back, while the car autonomously drives itself.
The car also features multiple smart touchscreens with which users can entertain themselves, as well as altering aspects of their journey including the route. Outside the car, there are multiple sensors which constantly scan and analyse the surrounding environment through which the car is travelling.
There are also LED lights which project signals and messages as pedestrians and other cars approach. The F 015 even talks to pedestrians crossing the road, offering them right of way with a friendly, "Please go ahead".
"Anyone who focuses solely on the technology has not yet grasped how autonomous driving will change our society," said Dr Dieter Zetsche, head of Mercedes-Benz Cars. "The car is growing beyond its role as a mere means of transport and will ultimately become a mobile living space."
While Mercedes presented its vision of autonomous vehicles for a future still some years away, BMW demonstrated autonomous technologies incorporated in to its existing models.
The German firm showed its electric i3 car fitted with a new technology called ActiveAssist. This uses laser-sensors built into the front and rear bumpers to create a 360-degree image that is fed to the on-board computer and used to judge when the brakes need to be applied. The car can even override the user’s manual controls.
ActiveAssist has also been designed to power an automated valet system. Via an app on Samsung smartwatches, a user can issue a voice command, "BMW, pick me up", and the car will drive itself to their location. A driver can also get out of the car on entering a car park and leave the car to identify a free space and park in it by itself.
BMW said this technology is a few years away from mainstream production, as the price of the sensors need to come down before it becomes practical to roll the technology out across all models.
Not to be outdone by its German rivals, Audi also introduced an autonomous vehicle of its own, the Audi Prologue piloted driving concept car. The Prologue uses a laser scanner, several video cameras, radar sensors and ultrasound sensors to navigate safely.
Driverless cars are already being tested by Google, who introduced their concept for autonomous vehicles last year, and are currently testing them on the streets of Sunnyvale in California, where the company is based.
Earlier this month it was announced that through government funding, driverless cars would begin to be tested in the UK.
"We're looking to start our first trial with automated shuttles with members of the public in May," said Dr Nick Reed from the Transport Research Lab, leader of the consortium running trials in Greenwich, south-east London, which are due to begin in May.
The CES show also saw new automotive technologies exhibited by Hyundai, which introduced a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, and WiTricity, which demonstrated its wireless car charger that slides under an electric car.