Are driverless cars the next big thing?

CES 2013: It sounds like something out of Knight Rider, but driverless cars could be much closer than you think

Forget hands-free chat, we won’t even have to bother looking at the road when we’re all being chauffered around in computer-piloted cars.

So you’re ready to hit the road. You get behind the wheel, tell your car where you want to go and sit back as it takes you there, sticking to speed limits and talking to other cars to avoid collisions.

It sounds like something out of Knight Rider, but computer-controlled cars could be much closer than you think.

This year’s Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas saw two self-driving motors in action.

Toyota’s Advanced Safety Research Vehicle has an array of sensors that scan traffic, measure distances and identify red from green lights using three HD cameras. Radar units keep track of traffic at junctions, while 360-degree Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) lasers detect objects up to 220 feet away. All this information is then fed back to the ‘driver’, alerting them to any potential dangers that may require them to take over.

Piloted parking A multitude of cameras and sensors enables an auto-car to move itself safely.

Audi, meanwhile, demonstrated a completely autonomous A7. Arrive at the office, switch the car to piloted mode using the iPhone app and it trundles off to find a parking space by itself. Twelve ultrasound and laser sensors navigate pillars, posts and – most importantly – pedestrians.

At the moment, the A7 can only park itself in a garage fitted with compatible sensors, but Audi predict a time when roads and buildings integrate self-driving sensors as standard.

So is this the end of human control? Audi and Toyota have been quick to point out that their systems are designed to assist us on our journey rather than replace a human driver.

But with both companies suggesting their technologies will be commercially available within a decade, a driverless future is the next logical step.

With 95% of all road accidents attributed to human error, computer-piloted cars may lead to safer roads, but other legal and moral questions will have to be asked.

If a robot car did cause an accident, who would be to blame – the vehicle’s owner or the manufacturer who sent it on the road? Not that such issues ever seemed to worry Michael Knight.

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