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Trending Science: The quest for driverless cars

When will driverless cars be on stream? And which manufacturer is going to make it happen?

Ten years ago you might have dismissed driverless cars as another science fiction fantasy. However, thanks to the work of intrepid researchers and engineers, the concept has is very close to becoming a reality on our roads. Google has led the pack of pioneers in the quest for driverless cars but will they be the first to launch the first model for mass production? Earlier this year, Google unveiled a prototype specifically designed for autonomous operation. As Forbes reports, this model had no steering wheel, pedal, brake or gear shift. The only things the driver controls are a red ‘e-stop’ button for panic stops and a separate start button. The car would be summoned with a smartphone application which would pick up a passenger and automatically drive them to a destination selected on a smartphone app – no human intervention necessary. It sounds like a seamless operation. However safety has been an ever-present issue for developers. Originally it was planned that humans would take over in the event of an emergency, however tests showed that passengers might not be alert enough, as Christopher Urmson who directs the car project at Google, told the New York Times. Instead, the vehicles will have electronic sensors that can see about 600 feet in all directions. The front of the car will be made from a foam-like material in case the computer fails and it hits a pedestrian. The New York Times describes the car as ‘a little bubble car from the future, streamlined to run by itself’. Although Google appears to be the frontrunner – and is certainly the most vocal – for getting driverless cars on stream, contenders may be coming up on the inside. Cars currently on the market already have systems that help guide you into tight parking spaces, keep you at a set distance from other cars on the highway, and warn you if you're about to hit an unseen object. In late September, Audi announced that it had become the first car maker to receive a permit from the state government to test self-driving cars on California’s public roads. Mercedes, BMW and Volvo have also introduced cars that have the ability to travel without driver intervention in limited circumstances – however none have completely eliminated the driver. Volvo told the New York Times that it hopes to have models with this Traffic Jam Assist ability in the hands of consumers by 2017. Could these be a threat to Google’s bubble car? According to Global Manufacturing, Audi & Co. aren’t really ‘playing the same game’ as Google. While Google’s vision is focused on creating a whole new concept for the driving – in which road traffic accidents and congestion become much less common, traditional manufacturers have a more conservative outlook. Their focus is on creating a self-driving vehicle that looks very much like current models with the aim of outpacing the competition rather than disrupting the sector. Commenting on the advances of other manufacturers, Google’s Sergey Brin told the New York Times, ‘That stuff seems not entirely in keeping with our mission of being transformative.’ The race towards driverless cars continues!

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