Autoficial intelligence

Driverless cars “LOOK no hands.” On the count of three Tino Ganjineh takes his hands off the steering-wheel and the VW Passat stuffed with computer hardware takes over. As “MadeinGermany”, for that is the car’s rather cumbersome name, starts its…

Driverless cars

“LOOK no hands.” On the count of three Tino Ganjineh takes his hands off the steering-wheel and the VW Passat stuffed with computer hardware takes over. As “MadeinGermany”, for that is the car’s rather cumbersome name, starts its autonomous journey, Miao Wang, Tino’s colleague in the passenger seat, monitors every move on a laptop computer.

AutoNOMOS, part of the Artificial Intelligence Group of Berlin’s Free University, has been working on autonomous cars since 2006. MadeinGermany is its most advanced vehicle yet. Watching it navigate the ten kilometres from the Brandenburg Gate to west Berlin’s Kaiserdamm, at an unearthly hour of the morning, is a moving experience. This is the future. But a truly autonomous car without Tino and his colleague ready to grab the controls at any second is still years away.

MadeinGermany won permission to do test drives on Berlin roads in June. But that licence requires a Tino to sit at the wheel, like a driving instructor with dual control. With a GPS system accurate to under a metre, video cameras, dozens of sensors, four static lasers, and an all-seeing laser scanner revolving on its roof, the car can spot red and green traffic lights, follow traffic lanes and avoid hitting things. But it cannot make those decisions that are instinctive to human drivers, such as swerving or accelerating out of danger. Bright sunlight can make unlit traffic lights look red. All kinds of unforeseen factors can cause MadeinGermany to hesitate or jam on the brakes. For the moment it can only follow routes whose hazards have been mapped out beforehand.

But that is not to belittle the achievement so far. Some of the equipment is already making its way into production cars. In 2007 the group took part in the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) urban challenge for driverless cars in California, alongside American rivals such as the University of Stanford and the Google Car. Autonomous cars competing with each other tend to perform well, says Raul Rojas who leads the Artificial Intelligence Group. The combination of autonomous cars and cars driven by humans is far more complex.

What of the future? AutoNOMOS has two other cars under development, one of them electric (and Japanese, since no German manufacturer yet produces an electric car). Osram, a subsidiary of Siemens which makes of electric bulbs, is also experimenting with sending data from traffic light to car and even car to car.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is not a technological one. There is a conflict between the goal of a driverless car and the passion for driving that many humans share, says Mr Rojas. Still, who could argue with automatic systems that smooth out travel on motorways and improve traffic flow at intersections?

Futuristic cars at the Frankfurt autoshow

SHARON can park herself. At a signal from a smartphone, a system of tiny computers activates her engine, gearbox and steering—and she reverses smoothly into a parking space. Sensors stop her from bumping into other cars or people. Pilotless cars, such as the Volkswagen Sharan (nicknamed Sharon), are no distant dream. Many people at this week’s Frankfurt Motor Show were asking not only how the cars of the future will be powered, but who or what will drive them.

“Where does the car end and the phone begin?” asked Chris Anderson, the editor ofWired magazine, at a brain-storming session organised by Audi, a carmaker. A future car will be more like a computer on wheels, networked with the surrounding infrastructure and other vehicles. Even if it comes with a steering wheel, the “driver” will have the Knight-Rider-esque option of being piloted while he video-conferences, answers e-mails or looks on a screen at an annotated view of the world whizzing by.

In tough times, many carmakers are innovating like fury. Some are recasting themselves as “mobility service providers”. This means hawking car-related software and other add-ons. For example, for those who prefer to hire or share cars—as young city-slickers increasingly do—there is software to make them feel at home in any vehicle, by instantly switching the radio and other settings to their tastes. Some carmakers are also tempting buyers with more mundane services, such as priority parking or cheap deals on fuel (whether petrol, hydrogen or electricity). Or, to help them let off steam, they might offer an annual spin with that gas-guzzling sports-utility vehicle of their dreams.

Even in changing times, there is still plenty of the old passion for a flash motor. Thus the covetous sighs that greeted the new Ferrari 458 Spider (pictured), which was unveiled on September 13th. Alongside it was Ferrari’s first four-wheel drive, four-seater. “Different Ferraris for different Ferraristi!” exclaimed Luca di Montezemolo, Ferrari’s boss. Even Volkswagen’s new single-seater electric commuter, with its narrow body and wide wheel-base, looks rather like a 1950s racing-car.

So what of the future? Frankfurt taxi drivers, not far from the fairground, are feeling the pinch from car-sharing and an increase in limousine services. But pilotless taxis? Not in my lifetime, says one driver who has plied his trade for nearly three decades. Not in 200 years, says another rather younger colleague: “It’s science-fiction.”