Are you getting a little bored of the endless talk about autonomy for cars? And all the excitement in the mainstream media about Google cars and how we are on the edge of a whole new way of driving?
I don’t blame you. The day when your car will drive you to work is still a long way off. And don’t expect Google or Apple to upend the global car industry. The majority of cars sold in 10 years’ time will still need to be driven by a qualified occupant who will have their hands on the wheel for the vast majority of any journey.
Truth is, there are many kinds of automotive autonomy - and you probably have at least one form on your car already.
The fact that you might not know that is the whole point. With the exception of hands-free progress in heavy traffic - something that is still a tricky area for the law because of clauses in the Vienna Convention - most of the autonomous technology coming our way will lie dormant until the split second it is needed.
The autonomous system you might already have on your car is probably a form of electronic stability control (ESC). Take a corner too quickly - and then unsettle the car by lifting off the gas - and you run the risk of being pitched off the road.
The ESC has already made its calculations and can apply individual brakes to try to steady the car. Often it can also kill the engine’s power to try to prevent an accident.
But over the past three weeks I’ve experienced three of the latest types of automotive autonomy and I’m pretty sure the most important is nothing to do with taking your hands off the wheel.
Week one saw a quick trip to Heathrow Airport to try the new ‘autonomous’ Tesla Model S 7.0. Yes, it is very impressive, but it is the same mix of radar cruise control and lane assist that you’ll find on other top-end executive cars.
Unlike the US version of the software where it is possible - but not necessarily recommended - to drive hands-off, the EU Tesla’s biggest trick is its automatic lane change. Keep your hands at least loosely on the wheel and the car will perform a pre-checked lane change when you trigger the indicator stalk.
The car’s capabilities in heavy traffic are enough to take the weight off a tired driver and are especially useful at night. However, the Tesla does need to be able to track nice, clear, white road markings to be able to self-steer. Can we be sure that cash-strapped councils and governments can deliver the crisp, new road markings that auto-steering requires?
Week two’s autonomy was a quick lap of a race circuit near Barcelona in Audi’s autonomous RS7 Piloted Driving concept. Audi has two of these machines - one that drove itself from LA to San Francisco and one that can be programmed to complete a very quick lap of a race circuit.
I was in the passenger seat and Audi’s engineer was in the driving seat. The engineer did no more than squeeze a giant Scalextric-like controller to keep the car active and the RS7 powered its way around the circuit with a mesmerising sense of intelligence.
A second lap in an RS7 with one of Audi’s hot test drivers showed the human to be about three seconds a lap (with a time of 2min 9sec) swifter than the robot RS7. Interestingly, though, the human driver spent more time taking the tyres beyond their grip limit. The rear wheel rims were coated in hot rubber granules that had been squeezed off the tread.
The robot RS7 never squealed the wheels once: it knows precisely the point at which the tyres begin to lose grip.
It was week three’s drive that really showed me the future of autonomy. Audi’s new Q7 e-tron plug-in Hybrid comes with the option of an autonomous powertain control system called ‘Progressive Assist’.
Type in your destination and route into the sat-nav and the car will look at the route and take into account the topography of the road, weather, traffic conditions and the position of villages and towns.
As I drove the car around the route, I was completely unaware of the e-tron’s brain shuttling the powertrain operation between combustion engine, hybrid, coasting and pure battery running.
It would even preserve the battery to allow EV-running through the villages through which we drove, and it could switch between different modes in a matter of 100 feet or so. Because the system is connected to the web, it can adjust its strategy as the conditions change.
Predictive Assist is the kind of autonomy that will really be useful. It has the potential to reduce fuel consumption significantly, even with non-hybrid cars. The weirdest thing about it was that I had no sense, when driving, that anything much was happening under the bonnet. And that’s the best kind of autonomy.