A few months ago I was running along the southern end of the M1 on the near-permanent 50mph stretch pondering just how close we are to self-driving cars.
I was driving Autocar’s recently-departed Jaguar XJ long term loan car with the radar cruise control activated and was amazed at just how well the system was modulating between the need to keep me at 50mph and the need to keep me the correct distance from the car in front.
It struck me that if the XJ had side-ways facing parking radar - working with electrically-assisted steering - it could probably have relieved me of the onerous task of keeping the Jaguar between the white lines.
Indeed, I’ve already driven an experimental BMW X5 which used side-mounted radar (as opposed to ultrasonic) parking sensors which did just that. BMW called it ‘narrow passage assist’ and it’s been designed to stop vehicles clashing on narrow motorway lanes by overriding the driver and applying corrective tweaks to the steering.
Self-parking cars, of course, are already here and make an incredible sight in action. Low-speed auto-braking - such as Volvo’s City Safe - is also about to become a much more widespread option. In fact, recent reports from insurance statistics suggest that the suitably-equipped XC60 is involved in 26 per cent fewer front-end accidents.
With self-shifting ‘boxes likely to become virtually standard equipment by the second half of the decade (forced on us by ever-stricter fuel economy regulations), only the freedom to accelerate hard and at will seems to be, so far, untouched.
If you fancy a first hand of taste of the future, try parking in the business car park at Heathrow’s Terminal 5. Rather than wait for a rattling shuttle bus, you climb aboard a self-driving, four-seater, ‘pod’ to get the check-in.
Once the folding doors open, you are instructed by an ethereal (and very Bladerunner-esque) female voice which tells you to sit down, close the automatic doors and press the ‘go’ button.
The electrically-driven Pods rumble off and upwards on a concrete roadway, and you can sense the machine sensing its way between the kerbstones. Oddly, I can’t say I found it particularly relaxing, even if it was impressively direct and didn’t have to battle with other vehicles and traffic lights.
Driver assistance is all to the good. But I don’t really fancy taking my hands off the wheel and sitting back any time soon.