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The self-driving car in the city of the future

, September 14, 2015, 0 Comments

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The self-driving car is already a reality, if not a common one or a practical one just yet. But when it does become ubiquitous what changes will occur to our cities and to the humans who share their habitat with these robots on wheels? The digital arts and technology festival, ARS Electronica in the Austrian city of Linz, has been asking how cities and humans might adapt to this new mobility.

What the futurologists are not sure of is how humans will interact with their new wheels or how pedestrians and cars will communicate with each other. Or how the urban environment will change to accommodate the driverless car.

Engineers are confident it’s only a matter of decades before cars with drivers behind the wheel become as exotic as a horse and carriage or a penny-farthing bicycle in mid-city traffic.

“This one is the first one I would say where there is a complete vision of the future – what is city life, what is our life, what will happen with us here in these (next) 20 years,” says Alexander Mankowsky, future studies Specialist for Daimler AG as he runs his eyes over the Mercedes FO15 research car. It looks like a 1970’s space ship fantasy; all ethereal and glowing. Yet it drives and stops and is helping engineers and planners resolve the issues around driver-free mobility. Mankowsky describes this car as “a beacon into this future.”

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“Beacon” is a good simile for this car. It’s almost luminous and a laser sometimes shoots forward from it. That’s part of how it communicates with its surroundings. For example it can tell a pedestrian it’s safe to cross in front of it.

“This car is equipped with light signals in front and the back which tell the intention of the car, which can communicate with you, can even project a virtual (pedestrian) crossing on the ground,” says Mankowsky. The car’s sensors note the pedestrian and tell him or her if it’s safe to cross in front of it or it can flash up a stop sign if the pedestrian should not cross the road, he explains.

Are drivers and riders ready to hand control to a computer?

Many people, certainly not all, find communicating with a car via their hands and feet enormously satisfying. Rally drivers have made an art form of controlling a car at high speed on everyday roads. Race drivers have become national heroes and many of us aspire to just such a close relationship between driver and car. Are we ready to give that up and let the digital age do it for us? Makowsky says forget it, the heroic driver is as anachronistic as the heroic horseman.

“It’s a step by step process and as experience shows if there is a button, where automatic is a description of the button, everyone will push it and forget about it.”

The FO15 still has a steering wheel but it’s small, almost an afterthought; only there for when the occupants venture beyond the urban environment and on to a country road lacking the necessary communication infrastructure.

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The Mercedes FO15 is a luxury concept vehicle but in many cities, especially throughout Asia, motorcycles provide mobility for the masses. Surely there’s a future in which humans will still feel the thrill of controlling their two wheeled machines as they scoot past the computer controlled car?

“The real revolution is that once you are too late on the brakes in the curve you can switch on KERS and it very softly and slowly brakes you on both wheels,” says biker Martin Honsig who is demonstrating the Johammer electric motorcycle at ARS Electronica.

The Johammer’s fully enclosed frame is reminiscent of classic machines from half a century ago but this two-wheeler draws on the latest Formula 1 motor racing technology including the Kinetic Energy Recovery System known as KERS which pours energy back into the battery while the bike is braking. Honsig says if the rider gets into trouble the bike can get him or her out of danger at the flick of a switch which will hand control to the computer and KERS.

With a 200 kilometers range this machine and others like it can provide both city and country transport.

“It would be easy to go from Linz to Vienna and have a coffee there, find a battery station, a loading station and go back,” says Honsig.

‘The self-driving car of the future has to tell us if it’s autonomous…’

“The self-driving car of the future has to tell us if it’s in autonomous mode right now or if it’s being driven by a human being,” says Martina Mara, a researcher and specialist in robo-psychology at the ARS Electronica Future Lab. She says even a small child has to be able to recognize in a second whether a robot controlled car has seen it or not.

Think of it this way she says. “As we approach a pedestrian crossing we will often seek eye contact with a driver and that moment of eye-contact is what will tell us that it is safe to cross, or not” A self-driving car, says Mara, needs the same communication skill.

Mara and other researchers are using drones and robots they call shared-space bots to test this interaction between self-driving vehicles and humans.

Over the past one hundred years we have learnt to communicate with our cars almost as an extension of our finger tips and toes. And we certainly see them as a reflection of our personality. Are we ready to give that up? Mara, who admits that she is not a passionate driver, says there are plenty of people for whom car control is not important.

“You know there is already a lifestyle of young urban people who don’t need that feeling of controlling, of driving a car for their self-concept,” she says and then describes a future in which we will tell our “robo-taxi” to take us into the city. It will drop us off outside the pedestrian zone, park itself, and then pick us up where we tell it to.

self-driving-bike-marketexpress-inIf that sounds like an idyllic future it also sounds like something from an idyllic past. Your carriage awaits?

In fact the designer of the futuristic Mercedes FO15 took some of his design cues from the horse and carriage. The wheels are at the very extremity of the vehicle and the passengers sit facing each other, as in a carriage. Alexander Mankowsky describes the future car like this.

“It’s not so much transportation as a place where we can be, inside an artefact, a beautiful artefact like a living room on wheels; and that’s the future.”

He is describing an idealized future but could just easily be talking about an idealized past.